Though Dining Services plays a central role in student life, many aspects of its operation remain a mystery to many students. How does Dining Services set prices? Do prices change from year to year? And above all, why do all students have to be on the meal plan?
Many aspects of the dining room have changed this year, and there is more change to come. The most obvious changes so far are the cosmetic improvements in the scramble and dining rooms, including a fresh coat of paint, new lighting and new speakers. Soundproofing tiles in the GDR rooms prevent noise overflow between the two rooms that are often used as classrooms and meeting spaces. What students may not have noticed, however, is the dining hall’s new roof.
According to Dining Services director Lance Thornton and assistant director & executive chef Trey McCartt, students were supposed to be greeted by brand-new carpet when they returned from summer break, but it was determined that new carpet didn’t make sense until the roof was replaced. Instead, students will see both new carpet, and potentially a salad bar update as well, as a late Christmas present when they return from winter break.
What hasn’t changed much from last semester is the pricing. According to Thornton, although prices may seem significantly higher from year to year, in actuality they rise only minimally. “On an average, food prices go up maybe four percent over a year period. It averages out maybe four cents on a dollar over a year period. And that’s if it goes up,” McCartt added.
Prices in the scramble room reflect real-world food pricing. Each week, the Dining Services team meets to discuss pricing and review price reports. This generally means that prices for things like fruit change very slightly depending on the season or week, but many staples stay about the same.
One notable example of the general food market’s effect on scramble room prices was the bird flu epidemic several years ago which severely impacted the poultry market. Prices rose 50 cents per chicken breast in a relatively short period of time. This price increase led Dining Services to take steps to modify the menu so that students were able to stay within their meal budget despite the rise in prices.
“What we’re charging you is the food cost,” McCartt said. The actual price of the food students consume in the scramble room is how much it costs to put it on the student’s plate. However, the exception to this rule is the Pub.
Originally, the Pub was not part of the meal plan. Recently, however, students requested to be able to use their meal cards in the Pub. Thornton and McCartt acquiesced, but the Pub prices reflect a necessary markup. “In the Pub, its not designed to be your best deal because it has to cover the cost of labor,” Thornton said. “If you’re coming through the dining room, you’re not paying for the labor.” Students who buy food in the Pub aren’t just buying a quesadilla. They’re also paying the wages of the students who work in the Pub and the condiments on the tables. In the scramble room, that labor cost is covered by board fees.
In terms of the Dining Services budget, the meal plan is king. Every year, Thornton said, “We base our whole budget on the meal plan times enrollment. That gives us the dollars we have to work with. What goes into that is a standard profit and loss. [We factor in] pay for food, labor, benefits, equipment, repairs, cleaning up everyday, chemicals, china.” The money to run the dining hall comes solely from student board payments. If a student withdraws from the school during the semester, and Principia decides to refund their board money, Dining Services loses that money from their budget.
So why can’t students choose to not be on the meal plan, and why isn’t remaining meal plan money refunded at the end of the semester? It comes down to the size of the student body. “Here’s the challenge,” Thornton said. “Would we be able to have our dining service here if we made it optional? How many people would opt to skimp and not eat properly so that they could have money back? The school did not want that to be the focus. And at some point, you don’t get to have a dining service operation.”
If too many students were to opt out of the meal plan, Principia might not be able to sustain a food service at all. Furthermore, since the budget for Dining Services is based off of what students pay at the beginning of the semester, as well as a need to feed all students who might come to a given meal, paying funds back to students at the end of the semester might cause Dining Services to operate at a loss. As Thornton said, “We don’t operate at a profit, but we don’t want to operate at a loss either.”
The issue of being off the meal plan is more than just a matter of budget for Dining Services, however. According to cashier Tanya Ferguson, being off the meal plan would bring more considerations than students realize. “In my opinion, they’re better off to eat here,” she said. “For the simple fact, being out in the real world, I know how much food really is, and it’s going to cost you more than your traditional meal plan is going to cost you, in that 15- to 16-week period.”