Meal Plan Blues: SU overcharges students with certain meal plans

Crunching the numbers of the different Syracuse University meal plans reveals high prices, less food

A carton of eggs from a Tops supermarket range from 99 cents to $3. A bagel only costs up to $1. And a pound of bacon goes for $3.50.

Compared to those prices, Syracuse University overcharges for its meals—no matter how you slice it. Breakfast -– the cheapest meal of the day –- costs $8.50.

Despite cheap meals offered at stores and restaurants around campus, SU Food Services charges students significantly more money to eat at an on-campus dining hall.

Photo: Jennifer Swanson
SU seniors Young Kim (left) and Andrew Chun share lunch at the Schine Student Center. SU Food Services charges students significantly more money to eat at an on-campus dining hall.

Junior accounting major Rich Ferguson said he opted out of his campus meal plan this year when he realized how expensive it was compared to other options.

“This year I spend $170 or so on groceries every few weeks,” Ferguson said. “When I compared that to my 19 meals per week plan last year, it’s crazy how much I’m saving.”

SU offers 10 different meal plans to students. Students can purchase plans with 21, 19, 14, 10, or seven meals per week and there are also five variations of the five weekly-meal plans. The most expensive plan costs $3,610 per semester and the cheapest rings in at $1,600. Approximately 7,000 students register for a plan annually.

Time for a little compare and contrast. Nearby Cornell University charges $3,230 for its largest meal plan, which gives students unlimited access to the dining halls, meaning that Cornell students can pay $300 less for far more meals.

Breakfast at an SU dining hall for a student paying with SUper Food money is $8.50, lunch costs $12.50, and dinner clocks in at $17.75. However, depending on the plan that a student purchases, he or she can be grossly overcharged.

Take, for example, the 19 and 5-B meal plans, $3,450 and $1,700 per semester respectively. The cost for five meals is nearly 50 percent of the cost of 19 meals, but the number of meals provided is only about 26 percent. One would assume that a plan that costs half the amount of money as another plan should offer half the amount of meals. Right?

The 19 plan allows for three meals a day during the week and two on the weekends. The 5-B plan allots only one meal per weekday. Each semester is about 15 weeks long, therefore the less expensive plan allots about 75 meals per semester.

Both plans also offer SUpercard money that can be used at vending machines, on-campus food joints, or even at dining halls to save a meal swipe. The 19 and 5-B plans come with $160 and $260, respectively. So, to find the price of only the meals, consider the 19 plan to cost $3,290 and the 5-B plan to cost $1,440.

Do the math: students are overcharged.

To get the price per meal of the 5-B plan, divide the price of the plan by the number of meals it offers. This calculation yields roughly $19.20 per meal. That price is $1.35 more than what the university charges for dinner – the most expensive meal of the day.

David George, director of Food Services, said some of the extra charge covers other expenses beyond the food.

“The services of our registered dietitian are also included in the price of the meal plan,” George said. “It’s also important to remember that when you use a meal in a dining center, it is set up as all-you-care-to-eat.

Although it is all-you-can-eat in main campus dining halls, students who rely on South Campus dining have a limited amount of food they can get for each swipe. Once a student has reached the meal price cap, the cashier is required to cut him or her off. Students with more food on their tray than allowed must return some of it.

Joe Plishka, director of Meal Plan and ID Card Services, said in an email that prices also cover labor, cleaning equipment, dishes, and the cost of having the food delivered to campus.

Any student living in a main-campus dormitory is required to have a meal plan. Freshmen must purchase at least 14 meals per week, though each year a student spends in the dorm lessens the number of meals needed to purchase to fulfill the university mandate. But if meal plans prices are so inflated, why should SU force students to pay for them?

“The only reason I can think to justify it is that students need to eat,” said Kaye DeVesty, director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Programs. “I’ve dealt with students that either their funding is very tight or they are trying to really save money, and food is where they skimp out, almost to the point of hunger.

The idea: force students to purchase a meal plan, and in a way you’re forcing them to eat.

DeVesty is one of several people responsible for managing the I Otto Know This financial literacy program. As a branch of the office of financial aid, the program works with students to plan personalized budgets.

Students and an assigned counselor work together to first calculate the total cost of SU attendance. From there, the counselor helps the student decide how much money can be spent and where it should be distributed.

“It’s a learning process for students when they get here at 18,” DeVesty said. “You don’t know what parents have told their kids, so the first thing we do is lay out their expenses. Although students in dorms have fewer choices, we work to help them decide what their best options are.”

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