Firing Squad: Inside the economics of nuCuisine

Joseph Diebold, Forum Editor

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Buckle up, Nerdwestern: We’re about to do some basic arithmetic. But first, a little context.

I moved off campus this year after spending my freshman year suffering through melted soft-serve, stale pizza and 15-minute lines at Sargent Dining Hall. I was excited to finally have a kitchen that wasn’t also serving 50 of my hallmates and cooking tools that I didn’t have to store at the bottom of my overflowing dresser. I knew, however, when I accepted an editor position at The Daily that I would be spending a lot of time — and eating a lot of meals — in Norris.

So I looked into getting one of the meal plans that nuCuisine offers for off-campus students. Because of the important role that the Norris C-store and cafeteria and Norbucks (and, hopefully sooner rather than later, Frontera Fresco) play in the lives of Daily staffers, the block plan seemed like the best option. But because I am not always incompetent as a consumer — Yes, in retrospect that HD DVD player was not the wisest purchase, but “King Kong” in 720p was awesome at the time — I decided to figure out whether simply saving my meal plan money and paying cash would be the better option.

This is where the math comes in (between Nate Silver going 50-for-50  and this rant, numbers are having a great week). The “WildCat Block” plan offers 117 meals with 100 WildCat Points (dollars) per quarter for $1,820. The most a meal at either a dining hall or retail location at Northwestern (with a WildCARD) ever costs is $10.50 for dinner and Sunday brunch in a dining hall. Assuming you only ever ate dining hall dinners, you would be getting $1,228.50 of meal value. Add back the 100 points and you’re getting a maximum of $1,328.50 for $1,820.

And again, I wasn’t going to be eating in dining halls much. When I calculated the value at retail locations, it got even worse. There, the maximum value of a meal is dinner, for only $8.50. At Frontera Fresco, 117 dinners nets you less than $1,100 worth of value for more than $1,800 into nuCuisine’s coffers.

I was shocked. How could NU’s bright students be going along with such a ripoff? And then I remembered. In my excitement about moving off-campus, I had forgotten that the University requires all students living in residence halls and residential colleges to purchase a meal plan. NuCuisine can keep retail prices low by forcing almost half of NU students to pay high. I should be offended by this (OK, I’m still a little offended and I first did this math three months ago), but as it turns out, my friends who stayed on campus are subsidizing my dinners and coffee breaks, for which I now happily pay in cash. Thanks, guys.

—Joseph Diebold