Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Revamped meal plan system to go into effect next fall

Northwestern students will have a new meal plan system to choose from starting next fall.

After more than a year of collecting student feedback and discussing the pros and cons of the current meal plan system, a committee of Associated Student Government representatives, nuCuisine leaders and members from Residence Hall Association and Residential College Board finalized meal plan reforms that will be implemented starting next school year.

Vice President of Student Affairs William Banis signed the proposal at the end of last month, and nuCuisine will formally announce the changes this week.

Currently, students can choose from weekly, unlimited, block or non-resident plans. NuCuisine offers a weekly 13, weekly 16 plan and two different types of unlimited plans. There are also four block plans to choose from: A, B, C or D, each offering a certain number of points and meals. Students living in fraternities, sororities or off-campus housing also have an option to purchase the non-resident plan that includes six meals per week and a set number of points each quarter.

The new system narrows down the options to five different plans. Two of the plans were remnants of the current system: the weekly 13 and the non-resident plan. But three of the plans are new: a weekly 14, an unlimited plan and a block plan.

“It’s a big change,” ASG Student Life Vice President Katie Bradford said. “I think it’s really exciting. I hope students will be really happy.”

The beginning of the change

When Matt Bellassai served as the ASG student life vice president in the fall of 2009, he kept hearing complaints about the meal plans. According to students, the meal plans were not only overpriced, but the whole system was very confusing. So when he and other ASG representatives met with the Board of Trustees that quarter, he decided to bring it up.

“We spent half an hour, an hour at the meeting talking about meal plans,” the Medill junior said. “It turns out one of the trustees had been at an airport, and she overheard an NU parent talking about how confusing meal plans are here. The trustees all said they had no idea so many people were raising these points about the meal plans.”

The meeting, Bellassai said, put the issue of meal plan reform on the map. A few months later, Banis called for the creation of a meal plan task force that would tackle the issue. Rick Thomas, executive director of Norris University Center and Student Auxiliary Service, chaired the committee that included nuCuisine representatives, school administrators, members of the RHA and RCB, and ASG representatives.

In spring 2010, Bradford replaced Bellassai as the ASG student life VP. She shared Bellassai’s passion for reforming the meal plans, and during the transition process, they talked at length about how to move the issue forward.

“I was really frustrated about meal plans as an undergrad living in the dorms,” the McCormick junior said.

The change had been overdue, Thomas said. The last major change to the meal plan structure was almost a decade ago.

“We kind of knew that this was going to be the year that we dug into restructuring the meal plan,” he said. “Also, the people who took office in ASG last year had raised questions about the meal plans as part of their campaigns over a year ago, so it became a point of concern, a point of wanting to explore possible changes. So we partnered with the ASG Student Life Committee to address this issue.”

Finding focus

Thomas led the charge from the administrative point of view. He coordinated the communication between Sodexo and school officials while Bradford focused on the students’ perspective.

“The early part of the process was listening to what the issues were,” Thomas said. “What kinds of meal plan changes did students want, what about the current system they didn’t like or what about the current system they did like. We didn’t want to take away or change something that was important and valuable in what were end up proposing.”

To get student perspective on the matter, ASG sent out a survey last spring asking students about meal plans. Bradford said one of the biggest concerns students had was the value they were getting out of the meal plans. To get the value per meal that students are paying for, many take what they’re paying for the plan, subtract it by the number of points, since one point equates to $1, and then divide that by the number of meals.

In blocks B and D, students end up paying about $18 to $20 per meal. In blocks A and C, the rate per meal is about $14 to $15. For the weekly 13 plan, in which students get 455 meals throughout the year, they pay about $10 per meal. In the weekly 16-meal plan, students pay about $8.50 for each of the 560 meals they get throughout the year. But this is assuming that students use up all their meals throughout the week, which can be difficult because weekly plans are limited to meals at residence dining halls, Bradford said.

Flexibility was also an important factor for the meal plan committee, Bradford said. Students enjoyed having the versatility of block plans, where they can spend meals at dining halls or at retail locations like Lisa’s Cafe or Norris.

Lastly, the group sought to reduce the confusion surrounding the meal plan system.

“There were too many plans in the old system,” Thomas said. “It was confusing. We realized it would be better to pare it down to a narrow group of plans, each unique, and meet students’ needs in a different way.”

Exploring the possibilities

After determining the focus of the changes they wanted to make in the system, the group discussed the realities of what can and cannot be done. Thomas shared the perspective from the administrative side of things.

“We shared information with the students on the task force on how the food system works at NU,” Thomas said. “We also wanted to talk about the financial realities of the meal plan system.”

Bradford said the meal system at NU is basically a “self-sustaining system,” in that they have to make enough money to maintain the different food locations around campus.

“We wanted to understand from their side what the meal system needs to be able to do,” she said.

Bradford said they also looked at other meal plans in other schools. Thomas brought in a consultant that works with other colleges and universities, and the group talked about trends across the nation in terms of meal plans – what’s working and why at different places.

“We did some research and talked about different things,” Bradford said. “We looked not only at the money and the number of students at each school, but also the type of culture. You have to take that into consideration when you look at meal plans.”

Because NU has six different dining locations, there is more overhead cost, she said, so it’s difficult to compare our meal system with other schools. Ultimately, they had to look at NU separately.

After gathering all the information, Thomas worked with Sodexo to create different sets of meal plans that addressed what the students wanted but are still feasible under the limitations with NU’s meal system. They presented that information to the students in the meal plan working group, as Thomas called it, and the general consensus was around one particular set of meal plan options.

The new set of plans was then given to the housing and food service committee, who ended up approving the changes. They then presented that recommendation to Banis, whose approval signature finalized the changes.

What the new system entails

The new system presents five options for students. The first two are the carryover plans from the current system, which are the most popular ones, Thomas said.

The weekly 13 plan will give students 13 meals per week to use at dining halls, points and two guest meal passes per quarter. The weekly 6/non-resident plan offers six meals per week at dining halls and points. Faculty and
students living at fraternities, sororities and off-campus can purchase the weekly 6 plan.

There will also be a weekly 14 plan, in which students get 14 meals per week that they can use at residence dining hall locations. But three of those meals can be used as equivalency at retail locations, meaning that when students buy something at Lisa’s or Norris, they can use a meal to pay for it, up to a certain amount. The amount varies throughout the day, with different equivalency amounts for breakfast, lunch and dinner time. The plan also includes points and two guest meal passes per quarter. 

“We tried to tailor it to what students are actually doing,” Bradford said.

There is also one unlimited plan. Students will have unlimited entry into dining halls, including late-night locations. Two meals per week can be used as equivalency, and the plan has points and two guest meal passes per quarter.

Instead of having four different block plans, there will only be one block plan offered. It will have 350 meals and 300 points, Thomas said. Meals may be used at either dining halls or retail locations. This plan will only be available to upperclassmen.

Bradford said they limited the block plans to upperclassmen from a “safety net” perspective and as a way to encourage freshmen to get to know each other their first year.

Because block plans provide students all the meals and points from the start of the quarter, it requires a great deal of management on the student’s part to maintain their meal plan so that they don’t run out too fast, Bradford said.

She also said they want freshmen to eat mostly at dining halls.

“Encouraging freshman to eat in the dining halls is an important component of how community is formed at Northwestern,” Bradford said. “Being able to create and reinforce the sense of community to our newest students is another important aspect of this new plan. Several other schools also limit or require the options to their freshmen students for similar reasons.”

Analyzing the outcome

Bellassai, Bradford and Thomas said they’re all happy with the results of the task force.

“The price per meal goes down significantly, but the overall pricing for the plans remains the same,” Bellassai said. “You get more for your money. And you have more flexibility.”

Thomas said he believes they were able to effectively address students’ concerns about meal plans. Bradford said she really liked that they created plans that combined the different aspects of the current meal plans.

“Students can utilize their meal plans better,” Bradford said. “We really tried to look into why people choose weekly versus a block plan, and we tried to find that hybrid.”

The prices, for the most part, will stay the same. Thomas acknowledged they might cost a little bit more for next year as part of the tuition and housing fees increase that happens every year, but he said the meal plan costs were essentially the same.

They admit, however, that there were things they just couldn’t address as part of the reform. For one, Bellassai acknowledged that some people get frustrated that meals or points don’t roll over the next quarter, and most people spend the final weeks of the quarter making sure they spend everything before the quarter ends.

“We weren’t able to address the actual policy,” Bradford said. “But we hope the different meal plan structures somewhat address that issue.”

Food quality was also another issue that didn’t get a lot of play in the process. Bradford said during their discussions, they discussed food quality briefly. Sodexo, for example, asked the students on the committee if they would like to see more organic food served in the dining halls.

Bradford, however, feels as though the meal plan reform process opened up lines of communication between ASG and the administration when it comes to food issues.

“These conversations can keep happening in the future, and I think they’re all open to talk to students about these sorts of things,” she said.

Bellassai said he’s happy with the end result of this process, and it’s up to future ASG leaders to keep the ball rolling.

“That’s the next step,” Bellassai said. “What it comes down to is, students are still paying a lot of money for this food, and food quality will definitely come up. To me, logically, that’s what the next ASG administration should look into.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Revamped meal plan system to go into effect next fall