Nothing gets college students angry like messing with their food. Aside from being essential, meals are a cherished moment to relax and socialize. Infringe on that, and there will be problems. Yet, that is exactly what Dartmouth Dining has done lately by increasing food prices and pushing students to purchase meal plans that give them less and less bang for their buck.
We want to acknowledge that this is not the fault of the workers who run campus dining facilities, and we would like to thank each and every one of them — from the chefs to the custodial staff to the baristas and dishwashers — for everything that they do for us. We also appreciate Dartmouth Dining’s decision to reopen late night at ’53 Commons, as well as Dartmouth Student Government and the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault for helping make it happen. This is undoubtedly a positive addition for students.
Less positive, though, is the amount students are forced to pay for on-campus dining options. Food prices at campus dining locations have spiked. The Hop burger special is suddenly 30% more expensive than it was last term, and prices of most other items have gone up similarly. The value of the meal swipes, which students get as part of their meal plans, however, has not budged. Dartmouth Dining management has attributed the price increases to national inflation and labor shortages — in other words, Dartmouth Dining is supposedly just another innocent victim of broader global uncertainty. We are not convinced.
We will start with inflation. We understand the broader economic situation at hand and would be foolish to suggest prices should not budge. Since inflation began to spike in mid-2021, the Consumer Price Index as monitored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has risen by about 9.6% from July 2021 to November 2022 (the most recent date for which data is available). The problem is not inflation itself, but the extent to which Dartmouth Dining prices have changed, which exceeds inflation. Even when considering the “retail food away from home” sub-index — which includes restaurants and applies most directly to Dartmouth Dining — there is an inflation increase of about 11% over the same time period. Neither of these numbers comes near justifying the increases we have seen at Dartmouth Dining locations. In short, something else is to blame for the price increases.
According to Dartmouth Dining, the price of meal plans has risen at a rate lower than inflation. But this merely covers up the fact, which Dartmouth Dining admits, that the value of meal swipes and allowance of dining dollars have not changed since 2018. This leaves students with less food available no matter what plan they have. We would be less concerned with these price increases if the value of a meal swipe had risen along with them. Doing the math, the price per meal swipe on the 80 and 115 swipes-per-term plans is now about $16 and $14 respectively. This means they are worth between about 300% and 40% less outside ’53 Commons — using meal equivalencies — than what students are paying for them. The point of a meal swipe is that you are supposed to be able to purchase your entire meal — not just part of it — with one swipe of your ID card. That’s why it’s called a meal swipe. Instead, purchasing an ordinary meal — say a sandwich and a drink — almost always requires you to dip into DBA. Take the burger special, which we referred to earlier. Last term, a student could get a burger and fries with a fountain drink for the exact cost of one dinner meal swipe: $10. Now, this same meal is a meal swipe plus $3.
For many low-income students, this is a significant challenge. Many financial aid packages provide in-kind support, meaning it covers the meal plan. But the declining value of the meal plans means they now are able to purchase less and less food without going out into town and spending their own money. While wealthy students can afford to go elsewhere, low-income students cannot, and this puts them at risk of food insecurity. Even students on the “unlimited” meal plan — which isn’t really unlimited — who theoretically have maximum access to ’53 Commons, are still at risk of food insecurity if they have dietary restrictions that aren’t or only poorly met by the cafeteria’s options. Many others simply do not like the food it serves. If the price of meal plans were to be increased and the value of swipes adjusted to reflect what a whole meal costs, this might help offset price increases by allowing low-income students to receive more food for the financial aid they receive.
Not only has the value of swipes and dining dollars declined significantly — swipes are also no longer accepted at numerous locations. Starting this term, snack bars no longer take them. They were never accepted at most cafes, including several which recently opened, such as Cafe@Baker, Ramekin, The Fern and Back of the Napkin. Paradoxically, Dartmouth Dining has been opening more dining locations while simultaneously struggling to find enough workers and making it harder for many students to afford eating at the new locations. Dartmouth Dining’s “preferred” unlimited plan, which supposedly “provides the ultimate in food access,” seems designed to funnel students away from the cafes and into ’53 Commons, which now struggles to seat all the students who wish to eat there at peak times. We see little to no evidence of any strategic plan to make sense of these contradictions.
To make matters worse, the way Dartmouth Dining communicates with campus has become quite insensitive. Recent — and now deleted — promotions on Instagram for the “unlimited” meal plan included a reminder that “running out of meals is not fun or cheap and you better believe we’re going to say we told you so.” After the remarks were criticized as classist and insensitive, Dartmouth Dining responded that the post was “not intended to offend,” and just “supposed to be a lighthearted kick in the pants to those who found themselves running out of meal swipes in prior terms.” We are disappointed that we feel obligated to say that food insecurity is not a joking matter. Aggressively pushing students on something they may have little control over is highly disrespectful at the least. They don’t need a reminder that not having enough to eat is not fun.
What do we want to see change? First, we would like to see alterations to problematic policies, especially those further limiting the use of meal swipes. Second, the value of meal swipes must be permanently pegged to an index of the items Dartmouth Dining sells, so that low income students are never again unfairly squeezed by factors out of their control. Third, an independent audit of Dartmouth Dining’s finances must be performed. This should be followed by a strategic plan to address its findings as soon as possible, with the full results made public. Finally, there must be an increase in self-awareness in Dartmouth Dining communications. There needs to be better communication between Dartmouth Dining, Student Government and other representatives of campus in order to prevent situations like this from happening again. We are hopeful for the future if these action items can be accomplished.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.
Opinion Editor Kami Arabian was not involved in the production of this piece.