April 4, 2003

Campus Food: Too Expensive?

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While many students can drive to faraway gargantuan supermarkets like Wegmans, other on-campus residents decide not to risk the long bus rides and instead purchase their higher-priced staples at University locations such as Bear Necessities (B.N.) and J’s Express.

A recent Sun investigation found that prices at on-campus convenience stores are significantly higher than those at locations in Collegetown and the City of Ithaca. To compensate for student concerns, Cornell Dining has several meal-plan changes in the works which will put more reliance on Big Red Bucks (BRBs), in addition to a renovation of Okenshield’s.

According to students like Kevin Hall ’03, products at University outlets are generally too expensive.

“The price is my number-one complaint,” Hall said. “It has increased a lot each year.”

In the Sun investigation, product prices were compared at B.N., Tops Express in Collegetown and Wegmans in Ithaca. The results showed that the prices at Wegmans and to a lesser extent Tops Express, were significantly lower than those at the North Campus store.

For example, a 14-ounce (oz.) Lucky Charms cereal box is $4.99 in comparison to the $3.99 and $2.89 Tops and Wegmans prices respectively. Other grocery items such as Tide detergent are almost $2 more expensive at B.N. in comparison to Wegmans.

In addition, outside stores including Wegmans offer “Shoppers Club” programs which offer additional discounts to some products. A student can buy two 64-oz. Tropicana orange juice containers for $5. One such container costs $3.99 at B.N. and $4.19 at Tops. Tops has a similar discount program.

One of the main reasons why prices are comparatively higher at University stores is because they are not subsidized by the school, according to Victor B. Younger, retail general manager of Cornell Dining. Contrary to some students’ beliefs, the stores do not seek to make a profit.

“All of our venues are set up to break even,” Younger said. “Any additional income we make goes back to the general University fund.”

Younger said that another reason why the prices are typically higher is because of their wage structure. In comparison to outside outlets which pay minimum wage, Cornell Dining does not follow this policy.

“We pay all of our union employees at living wages by contract. This is higher than the minimum wage,” Younger said.

The final reason for the price inflation is that part of the revenue has to go back to the University in overhead. Profits are also put into paying debt or past renovations.

Even though some students complain about the prices of products, most revenue comes from cooked food such as pizza and subs. Younger said that approximately 60 percent of B.N.’s income comes from its grill and deli stations.

“Since dining halls close early, this is the only place to go at night,” said Chris Landrigan ’06.

Younger said that throughout the year, Cornell Dining evaluates product offerings based on their popularity and constantly reviews cost structure so that students can get the most for their money.

“We do surveys and customer comment cards and we make adjustments and modifications,” Younger said.

The dining office is also working with individuals around campus toward helping meal-plan students get the best bang for their buck.

The main body which often communicates with the dining office is the Student Assembly’s (S.A.) Dining Committee. The group has had input and pushed for measures such as takeout programs, increase of dining hours and, most notably, the switch in next year’s meal plans to an increased use of BRBs.

“Typically, we work in the area with students where they bring concerns out,” said Steve Blake ’05, chair of the Dining Committee.

One new addition specific to places such as B.N. is the offering of combination meals. Examples would include a pizza and drink order for a reduced price.

“The combo meal is something that students say they’d like to see,” Younger said.

Blake said that one of the main focuses of the committee in the first semester was the meal plan changes. He said that in comparison to meal equivalencies which are currently used, BRBs are much more flexible.

“I think that from what students have said over the past few years is that there have been mixed feelings about the meal equivalencies. With the BRBs, you don’t have to worry about using a meal,” Younger said. “I think students will be pleasantly surprised with what we come up with.”

Some students, including Denise Hurd ’04, feel that using their spare meals at places such as J’s Crossing might be more useful than having more BRBs.

“It’s a good place to use [meal equivalencies] up,” Hurd said.

Other initiatives include the renovation of Okenshield’s over the summer, where walls are being torn down to “open up the whole place,” Blake said. He added that the renovations will cost about three-quarters of a million dollars.

Students and staff are working toward a fresh market eatery and a cheaper $6.50 price for meals as well. In a few years, the West Campus Initiative will provide numerous eating facilities to cater to students. These future initiatives have provided major changes within the dining office.

“It’s important to note that the driving force behind it is that because of the changes on West Campus, there are going to be changes in [Cornell] Dining’s organization and cost structure,” Blake said.

One major student concern is not being able to use their BRBs on groceries such as toiletries or household goods. This policy might not change in the near future.

“BRBs are for food items right now. That’s not anything we’ve looked at to change,” Younger said.

Even with all of the changes that Dining will make in the coming years, some individuals like Hall, who is not on a meal plan, think that University dining is too expensive, even if it is convenient. Hall said that each month, he spends half as much as he would normally spend if he had a meal plan.

“[University stores are] right there when you need [them] and they are all over campus,” he said. “But you pay the price for convenience.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao