The Cavalier Daily
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EDITORIAL: Nickel and dined — increase the accessibility of the U.Va. dining system

The rigidity surrounding meal plans discourages an economically diverse student body and disempowers students from making their own choices

In case you have not heard it enough from professors and friends — welcome back. Back to school brings more than just snowball fights on the lawn and syllabus week. For many, the return to class coincides with the return to dining halls. Whether you’re an O-Hill fan or a Runk die-hard, the dining halls are an essential part of the University experience. However, outside of the sufficient food selection within the dining halls, the University dining system, which is managed by Aramark, fails to provide students with adequate flexibility. Specifically, the rigidity of meal plans has disempowers students to make choices based on their own circumstances. The meal plan system must be restructured to permit more flexibility for students and to accommodate a diverse student body.

One of the primary problems with the University’s current meal plan system is that it requires first-year students to purchase an All-Access meal plan with a minimum of 150 flex dollars. The least expensive of these options costs $3,085 per semester. This plan provides students with one swipe per hour along with meal exchanges. Many University students, whether for cultural or personal reasons, may not want to eat three meals a day much less once an hour, or cannot afford such unlimited access. Thus, the University’s All-Access plan is overly prescriptive and generally excessive. 

Unfortunately, the lack of accommodating meal plan options continues, albeit to a lesser degree, as an upperclassman. Students have a choice between the All-Access plan and three limited meal swipe plans which offer 160, 100 and 50 meal swipes per semester, respectively. On top of the base price, each of these meal plans also requires the purchase of at least 300 flex dollars per semester, meaning that basic access to dining facilities is contingent upon the purchase of flex dollars that students may not even use. So, upperclassmen are obliged to estimate the amount of swipes and flex dollars that they intend to use — overestimate and they will pay for more than they need. 

The lack of choice is more than just an inconvenience for students — it results in hundreds of lost dollars for families. Consider that low income families cannot afford to send their kids to 95 percent of colleges and that meal plans, in particular, are known to put an undue burden on students regardless of economic status. By limiting options for upperclassmen and locking first years into the most expensive program, meal plans become a financial stresser rather than a service.

Dining systems, as the physical site of food, socialization and informal learning, provide vital services to University students. Such spaces are especially integral during first year because they allow students to develop support systems. Perhaps, then, the University requires all first years to purchase an unlimited meal plan in order to ensure that no student, irrespective of diverse socio-economic backgrounds, is denied access to these spaces. While this would be an admirable goal, the current rigidity of meal plans suggests that the University is looking for an easy fix to a complicated problem. Instead of dealing concretely with the fact that vital socialization is effectively locked behind a paywall, the University has dictated the terms of first-year meal plans to students. Ultimately, this is an artificial type of accessibility that places an undue financial burden on students. 

The obvious solution is to replace meal plan packages with a fully customizable system. In fact, this sort of system is not without precedent — Virginia Tech’s meal plans function more like a debit card from which money is withdrawn each time you enter into a dining hall and to which you can add money at any point. This customizable system seems eminently feasible. But, we, as students, are not necessarily experts on what is best practice for the University and Aramark. We do know, however, that the current system, in all of its rigidity, is fundamentally unsustainable and inequitable. A fully customizable system is a self-evident solution. In fact, it is so blatantly obvious even to non-experts that we must question why this solution has not been implemented. Whatever the reason, legitimate or not, the self-evident nature of this solution should serve as an imperative to the University dining system to more clearly communicate the rationale behind its meal plan options and to address the rigidity which is so prohibitive to student nourishing and flourishing. 

The Editorial Board has been known to advocate for sweeping changes. But this time, we are not asking to overhaul an entire system or adopt new, radical epistemologies. The University’s dining system has strong bones — the food trucks are a win for students and local businesses, craving for Runk burgers last past first year and Ms. Kathy is widely beloved. We are simply asking for more options that better accommodate the spectrum of student diversity. Changing the meal plan system will not necessarily make college magically and perfectly accessible. However, if we can knock down one barrier to accessibility, it is worth it

The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associates and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at eb@cavalierdaily.com.

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