April 23, 2019

JONES | Stop Forcing West Campus Residents to Buy Unlimited Meal Swipes

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Big-eyed and stunned, my friends and I gasped while reading a brochure for a West Campus main house. It was as if someone listened to all our complaints about our freshman dorms and knew exactly what we wanted. Clean restrooms, air conditioning and proximity to Collegetown were enough to convince us that West is the best.

But no exceptional amenity comes without a hefty price tag. Living in the West Campus House System includes a particularly frustrating commitment: enrolling in a dining contract for unlimited meal swipes — a massive $3,000 semesterly bill that totals to a rough $4,500 cost of living on campus.

This dining contract, also known as the House Meal Plan, has been a requirement of all WCHS residents since the house system’s inception. The House Meal Plan gives residents unlimited access to meals at any West Campus dining hall, $400 in Big Red Bucks and 50 meal swipes that can be used at any non-West dining room. Moreover, it is cheaper than the Bear Unlimited Meal Plan, which is available to all students not living on West. Considering these benefits, then, the House Meal plan is arguably worth the price tag.

Indeed, the House Meal Plan is a fair option, but only for people who want it and need it. The problem is not the House Meal Plan itself, but that Cornellians who decide to live on West are forced to enroll in it.

When asked why this requirement exists, Hans Bethe House Assistant Dean Erica Ostermann referenced the vision statement of West Campus, stating it adds to “the deep value for the enhanced sense of community that is created with shared meals in your home.”

This is true, and completely agreeable. The community-building that occurs over the dinner table is superb, and in my experience has been “magical,” as she stated. However, the West Campus House System offers plenty of other resources for community building, such as opportunities to interact with House Fellows and professors outside the dining hall, as well as house events hosted by students. There’s no need to burden West residents with a possibly unwanted and expensive dining experience for the sake of community.

In fact, living on West the past two years has shown me the incredible influence the House Meal Plan has on Cornellians deciding where they want to live. Most of my friends have decided to live off campus simply because it’s more affordable. Others have told me that they would live on West were it not for the commitment to have an expensive meal plan. Likewise, for me, if I were not a recipient of financial aid, I could not fathom the thought of enrolling in an unlimited meal plan, let alone live on West.

The worst part though is that having one dining option for West residents is unreflective of the general student body. Cornellians everywhere have different preferences for the number of dining hall meals they want or need weekly. Many freshmen enroll in meal plans that give them access to 10 or 14 meal swipes weekly. Many Cornellians that live off-campus choose to have seven dining hall meals weekly or forego the meal plan altogether. These students do have access to an unlimited meal plan, but avoid it rightfully because it is not the best choice for them.

Even now, as a junior, I struggle to eat more than 10 meals a week at dining halls, yet I am still enrolled in a contract that gives me unlimited meals. Why spend an extra $1,000 to $2,000 yearly for meal swipes you don’t even use?

Perhaps I would feel less remorseful if my unused funds from meals went to a better cause than back to the Big Red IRS that is Cornell University. Every now and then, I see the Swipe for Hunger program signs outside of my House’s dining room, encouraging students to donate one of their guest meal swipes to help end hunger amongst college students.

Since Cornell does not reimburse students of their unused meal swipes, this program at least ensures that a portion of the remnant funds goes towards someone who might need it more. The problem though is that each student can donate only one meal a semester and cannot donate their regular meal swipes.

I’m sorry, but why? Given that so many West residents underuse their meal swipes, their expensive plan is a great opportunity for growing such a program. I end nearly every semester with roughly $200 leftover BRBs and god knows how many meals. Why can’t most, if not all these unused funds go directly towards an altruistic cause?

If Cornellians cannot choose directly where their unused meal funds go, they should at least have the freedom to enroll in any meal plan, regardless of residence. It’s fine to give West Campus residents the choice to eat anywhere, at any time, but the most important choice mustn’t be forgotten: the choice of quantity.

Nile Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nnj9@cornell.edu. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Wednesday this semester.