Dining costs steadily rise over past five years in response to inflation, market factors
Students said they struggle to make it through the term without budgeting or stealing.
With fruit cups costing $6.75, smoothies priced at $7.25 and a single packet of sour cream going for $1.25, many students are frustrated with the food prices at Dartmouth Dining locations. While both the price of food on campus and the cost of meal plans have increased with national inflation, the dining dollar allowance within each meal plan has not changed since 2018, according to an email statement from Dartmouth Dining director Jon Plodzik. The value of meal equivalencies has also stagnated since 2018, Plodzik added.
Students living on campus can purchase one of three meal plans for an academic term, according to Plodzik: the Ivy Unlimited for $2,331, the 115 Block+ for $2,049 and the 80 Block+ for $2,029. The Ivy Unlimited — which all first-year students are required to purchase for all three terms of their first year at the College — includes unlimited access to the Class of 1953 Commons and $250 in Dining Dollars, he added.
The Ivy Unlimited meal plan — which provides unlimited entry to ’53 Commons — encourages students to eat there for access to all-you-can-eat dining, according to Economics professor Patricia Anderson. However, many students tend to prefer the cafe-style dining of the Courtyard Cafe, Collis Cafe or Novack Cafe, according to Aubrey Lennon ’25 and Miles Opulauoho ’26. These spaces only accept swipes in the form of “meal equivalencies,” and the DBA value of a swipe has not increased since 2018, according to Plodzik. Students are allotted $5.25 for the breakfast and late-night meal periods, $7.50 for lunch and $10 for dinner.
With increasing food prices and unchanging swipe values, some students said that they are finding it difficult to get through the term. Catharine Herrera ’23 described the price increases as “absurd.”
“If you’re paying for a breakfast, you should be able to get a whole breakfast,” Herrera said. “We can’t really fit the amount of money that we get from the meal plan with the price of the food.”
Lennon agreed, noting a problem with the dollar-value equivalency of each meal swipe.
“Nothing is within a swipe,” Lennon said. “If I want a smoothie from Collis — that’s like eight dollars. There’s your whole swipe, so you’re not actually eating food.”
Despite student complaints about food prices, Dartmouth Dining senior manager for operational excellence Deborah Scanlon said that surges in the prices of food items and meal plans are reflective of increases in national inflation.
“We’ve incurred a lot of cost increases that weren’t necessarily anticipated when all the [meal plan] prices were put in place,” Scanlon said. “We have individual retail grocers that we go through and we’re very much reliant on them… Whatever they’re charging us is what we have to go with.”
The price of the Ivy Unlimited plan has increased by $306 since 2018, according to Plodzik. Year to year, national inflation has increased at a rate of around 3%. Analysis of Dartmouth Dining meal plans compared to national inflation revealed that the national inflation in prices jumped to 5%, while Dartmouth Dining’s prices didn’t change as drastically.
National inflation has caused challenges for Dartmouth Dining, according to Scanlon. She said that Dartmouth Dining works with local suppliers like McNamara Dairy who have been especially affected by national inflation.
Anderson said she thinks the Ivy Unlimited plan is monetarily sensible for Dartmouth Dining because it’s easier to keep costs down in a larger cafeteria setting.
“If the general economies of scale of production in the big cafeteria make it less costly for [Dartmouth Dining] to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, it might be advantageous to incentivize more people to use the main cafeteria,” Anderson said. “That can keep the overall costs of feeding students down.”
Higher prices of food items have created a culture of stealing, Lennon said, referencing the “$100 rumor.” The myth — though untrue — is that Dartmouth Dining charges students an extra $100 to accommodate for stealing each term.
“If I wasn’t stealing, I’m not eating,” Lennon said. “I’m not paying that price for the things that they’re selling. Like, that’s crazy.”
A “perfect storm” of economic factors has caused rampant national inflation, according to Anderson, who mentioned that price surges have been especially difficult in the food industry. The war in Ukraine has also increased the price of wheat, gas and fertilizer, and the avian flu — which is experiencing its highest prevalence on record in Europe — is affecting the price of poultry and eggs, she said. As a result, Anderson said she thought Dartmouth Dining has had no choice but to increase prices.
According to Anderson, the cost of inflation is compounded by the national labor shortage, which is especially prevalent in the Upper Valley and makes it more expensive to fund smaller dining options at Dartmouth like the Courtyard Cafe. Dartmouth Dining needs to hire more workers at each location, rather than a few to serve a large population — like at ’53 Commons, according to Anderson.
Scanlon confirmed that the labor shortage had increased the cost of dining.
“We’ve spent so much time just trying to get employees in here, but it’s been very difficult,” Scanlon said. “I mean, we’re in the Upper Valley, right? It’s not like we’re in downtown New York and could just get tons of people here. It’s been a challenge and a struggle. We’ve had to utilize temp agencies to help us just to survive.”
The stress for students isn’t just about prices, Opulauoho said. A meal swipe has to be used during a certain time frame: one for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night. Opulauoho said some students find these mealtime windows limiting. Opulauoho added he always has to eat during class to make the meal swipe schedule work on the Unlimited plan.
“Being in college is already hard enough,” Opulauoho said. “[I] shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get a healthy meal or whether or not I’m going to have to run in the middle of classes to go grab something.”