by Austin Gray
Editor’s Note: As Davidson students, we are taught to think freely and creatively. We’re encouraged to approach issues with a questioning, discerning eye, and to form our own conclusions based off of these observations. This type of intellectual thinking inspires students to solve common, everyday problems with unique and inventive solutions. This kind of problem-solving has recently been embraced by SGA President Ben Callinder, in his recent initiative to get Summit Outpost on meal plan. However, this is not the first student-prompted change in meal plan policy in the last few years. In 2014, upon the imposition of a mandatory meal plan policy, Austin Gray ’16 decided to voice his opinion on the controversial policy through an op-ed in The Davidsonian. Similar to Callinder, Gray was successful in his call for change, as his op-ed resulted in the reduction of the minimum mandatory meal plan from a 90-block to a 75-block. In his piece, Gray utilizes his knowledge of economics to make a variety of points about the perceived unfairness of the rule. In the spirit of student-led policy change, we take a look back at the op-ed that helped shape the current meal plan system.
Dear President Quillen,
Regarding the coming “Meal Plan Mandate,” there is still much explaining to be done. Just last year you were conferring at the White House on the topic of affordability, but now you are raising costs? Requiring hundreds of students who currently do just fine without meal plan to spend $1,200 on 90 Commons meals is market distorting, wasteful, and disenfranchising. Many students have good reasons for eating elsewhere, such as the affordable and personable nature of cooking or of a PCC meal plan. For this year’s freshmen class and beyond, being required to spend $1,200 on a Commons meal plan will be a major factor in deciding whether or not they want to join a Paterson Court organization. Many students who cook for themselves, especially students with kitchens who live off campus or in Martin Court apartments, will also be hurt financially.
In SAE, I pay $900 in dues and $1250 in meal plan for my ten meals (that’s Sunday dinner through Friday lunch, no breakfast). At $2,150 total, this plan comes in at a similar price as the ten meals per week plan at commons, $2,260. However, most PCC students simply cook, eat out, and otherwise fend for themselves on weekends, spending much less money than they would ($1,200) on the five additional meals of the 90 block. Additionally, most students would strongly prefer not to eat every weekend meal in Commons. While expenses vary per person, one student without any meal plan called cooking all his meals “cheaper than Commons by a long shot.”
Someone with a PCC meal plan would be spending $3,350 while someone on Commons would be spending $2,800 (respectively for fifteen and fourteen meals). This Commons mandate makes it far more expensive for students to participate in PCC organizations and seems ridiculous since PCC students can pay $1,250 for ten meals per week while this proposed $1,200 tax would get us half of that. Obviously this problem doesn’t affect me, it only affects this year’s freshmen and beyond, but it will drive many students away from making a choice they otherwise would have. Your policy does to consumer choice what Vladimir Putin has recently done to international law: tramples all over it.
In an ideal world, money would not be a factor influencing a student’s decision about his or her social life in college. The school has financial aid, as do the PCC houses, taking much of this pressure off of many students. However, this Commons mandate would still doubtlessly influence the decision making process, with regard to recruitment, of many, many students. Many affiliated students pay meal plan and dues out of their own pocket and this additional $1,200 will act as a significant deterrent to every future class. By making PCC so much more expensive, this mandate makes PCC dues and meal plan suddenly look like an expensive luxury, which they are not. Additionally, many PCC organizations already face recruitment and budget concerns; falling recruitment and revenues could possibly drive some houses to close their doors.
Making Commons and Davidson affordable for all students is a goal we share. I find it hard to believe that the best way to fix Commons' budget problems is requiring more students to purchase their meals there. If PCC houses and individuals can provide themselves with food so cheaply, there is no way that Commons must be so expensive. Why, for instance, would we be paying $13.33 per meal in the 90 block to purchase a $9.50 breakfast or a $12.25 lunch or dinner? With the current setup, it would be cheaper for a student to purchase every meal individually, rather than through a meal plan. Something is simply wrong here.
Some of the goals you laid out are admirable, but they still do not justify Common’s absurd expense. In SAE, we provide vegetarian and kosher meals for those who need them; we often have food from local farms; we draw on a global taste profile with Chinese, Italian, and Arab cuisines as just a few examples. Not only that, but PCC kitchens are open around the clock. Houses and individuals accomplish everything that you have laid out as essential for Commons. We do all this on a thrifty, efficient budget.
There is no doubt in my mind that the root of Commons’ profligacy is in the supply side. I wish now that, when on SGA last year, I had tried to join the committee overseeing the recent evaluation of Commons. During my time as kitchen manager and treasurer of SAE, I learned a lot from our cook, Jen, about cutting costs and keeping meals nutritional and affordable. In improving the quality of Commons, please look to wise people like Jen or to others with experience in cutting costs, instead of to a committee of SGA bureaucrats. Please let students choose where they find their meals, be it in their own kitchen, on Patterson Court, or at Commons. Overall, please lower costs instead of taxing us!
***This article originally appeared in the Davidsonian Perspectives page in 2014***