$147 and a big shopping cart were basically my Saturday afternoon in a nutshell. Five large, packed grocery bags wobbled back and forth inside the cart as I meandered my way to the bus stop. The bus came before I was there, so I had to run uphill and unload my cargo onto the decently occupied vehicle. I left the cart on the road; if you found one stranded around the Ithaca Mall, it could have been me. I apologize. The big question here, though, is why on earth would a freshman spend three precious hours of her sparse free time — right in the middle of exam season — wandering grocery aisles shopping for food. Quite simply: Because that’s how you get food when you don’t have a meal plan.
Every week, you hear of more and more people using their college transition as a route to food independence. Every week you also hear the same story of genuine disappointment, frustration and defiance echo in answers to the big question: Why are you not on a meal plan? In reality, all of us are thinking the same thing: We came here expecting award-winning cuisine and found a not so appealing, mildly upgraded version of a school cafeteria. “Mac and cheese,” E. Eghafona ’24 admitted “was like a block of saltless paste with milk literally running in the bottom.”
For many, the turning point comes when we get down to the numbers. If a 14-swipe meal plan costs $2,721, including 400 BRBs (Cornell’s “taxless” dollars), then it costs $2,321 for meal swipes throughout the 12 weeks of the semester — that’s around 14 dollars a meal. Now, 14 dollars would be a reasonable amount in other circumstances. A lot can be done with 14 dollars. You can get Korean barbecue for 14 dollars. You can get two salads for 14 dollars. For 14 dollars, you can get a bag of groceries, several cookies or a nice pizza. But, for 14 dollars you expect decent food, and what many students are seeing is that the food Cornell Dining has planned for this semester does not live up to this expectation.
“What I would like to know is where our money really goes,” confessed S. Aiyer ’24. “Sometimes you pay for convenience, but here convenience is being too expensive.” Is it that convenient, though? Does having a meal plan really make your life easier as a freshman, and what would not having one look like?
Being in charge of your own food is definitely a taste of reality. Suddenly, you realize that food doesn’t magically appear on your plate, and if you don’t think ahead, you will indeed run out of milk, or eggs, or tomatoes or whatever it is you needed to feed yourself today. But, at the same time, being the person behind your every meal gives you a sense of empowerment — a sense of control — over what goes into your system. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different: Some people find themselves always making peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, others buy mostly frozen meals or live mainly on pasta. Yet, what all of them realize is that for some bizarre reason, the stars have aligned and now they have to choose what they’re going to devour next and how.
I talk about my own experience when I say that I now find balance when I eat. I don’t feel morally obliged to pig out on tater tots to compensate for the exuberant cost. I choose the size of my portions: When I’m full I stop eating, when I’m hungry I eat more. Time wise? I plan my meals ahead and have ready-prepared ingredients to simply combine when lunchtime comes or when I’m in a hurry. It’s true that cooking takes time, but not being on a meal plan means you don’t have to worry about hour-long lines, finding a dining hall or going outside in the cold, Ithaca weather. You have your fridge, and you have your food. If you’re hungry, you just get it. If you’re outside, you just take out your tupperware.
Probably the greatest advantage of not having a meal plan, though, is the guiltless liberty of dining out. Because they’re not engaging in demanding payments, the students I have met all agree they feel much more comfortable supporting Ithaca’s various and appetizing restaurants. The moment you send Cornell Dining an email with the keyword “cancel,” the doors of independence open up, and the options are limitless. I will be transparent here, when I sat down and did the math, I estimated spending $1700 on groceries and dining out. I have spent roughly $400 on food since getting to Cornell, though, and I have not denied myself the satisfaction of buying more opulent ingredients, and going out to eat yummy food that Cornell Dining doesn’t provide its students with.
Overall, the main reason why students choose to drop their meal plans is because they seek good food and variety. The dining system needs to be improved by spring so that students have something to look forward to next semester. Cornell Dining should keep this in mind: Their food should live up to their numerous culinary awards. We came here expecting great food — an acclaimed, Skidmore medal dining program — and this is what we should actually get.
Andrea Miramontes Serrano is a freshman in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.