Letter to the editor: New meal plan does not make dining more transparent, is unfair to low-income students

The proposed dining plan will discourage students from living in UW housing.

Image By: Betsy Osterberger

As a resident and a house fellow, the residence halls were foundational in my social and academic college experience. Through neighbors down the hall, I found several of my best friends, learned about cultures from around the world and developed curiosities for academic disciplines I hardly knew existed. With nearly all first-year students living on campus, Housing helps form intimate communities to contrast the enormity of the University and brings together students from all academic, regional and ideological backgrounds to an unstructured social setting — a phenomenon not found elsewhere at the school to such significance. With how critical a role Housing plays in campus life, I am concerned about how the mandatory Dining deposit will impact low-income students' access to our state’s public flagship university.

This plan will not address uncertainty around budgeting for students and parents — the cited purpose for the change. Dining Director Peter Testory is quoted in The Daily Cardinal claiming, “[This system] is really giving people a better picture as to how many meals a week do you think you are going to eat in the residence hall.” Yet, when forcing students to choose a plan based on averages, those who don’t fall in the middle of the distribution curve are ignored. Even your own website acknowledges this conundrum, stating in a footnote to the tiers that, “Actual amounts will vary based on eating habits, food choices, and additional food items purchased beyond meals.” If the concern was students coming to school not knowing if they were going to spend $3 on soup and a salad or $8 on wings and fries, all your tiered plans still use the average cost of a meal (between $4.84 for the Gold plan and $5.05 for the Silver plan) as the metric for budgeting meals and cost per week. These plans will not help students budget who do not directly match those averages. Do you think providing itemized food prices on your website could help students better plan a budget rather than forcing them to fit the average?

If your goal is truly to help students and their families or support networks budget, why not provide data that better reflects the variances of spending habits such as median costs or percentiles of the expenditure distribution? Knowing that the top quarter percentile spends ‘x-amount’ on food and the bottom quartile spends ‘y-amount’ would be much more helpful to students than a flawed, single average which this new plan continues to rely upon. From my time in the GreenHouse and International Learning Communities, I know there are sizable groups of residents who scarcely eat with Dining (and therefore lower the average expenses projection). Many students utilize residence hall kitchens as opportunities to share foods, cultures and build community. Not only will this plan undercut these organically formed connections and community-building moments, but these students — along with those who forego Dining food due to allergies or religious reasons — will be forced to eat at a place (or subsidize a place) that may only have the same few options that meet their restrictions.

Nor is this plan likely to reduce overall food costs, as claimed by Housing Director Jeff Novak. While it’s true that a known revenue can make budgeting easier, this plan will not inform Dining of how to spend the money on inventory. What if students, now forced into the system, use their money only at the Union or buy hundreds of dollars of non-perishable goods from Flamingo Run at the end of the year? University Dining will still have no better idea than before whether to purchase more of one food or another and will still need to rely on projected consumption patterns as they have before.

I want to assume positive intent in the actions of University Housing and Dining, but between failing to address the problem you claimed needed fixing, its coercive nature, the classist language and incentives and the sheer lack of consideration for those other than the "average" resident, I can’t help but question a more insidious motive. Forcing residents to make a non-refundable deposit less than two weeks into the academic year seems like a veiled attempt to swindle anxious, well-meaning parents into overpaying for their children — the remainder of the fees feeding Housing’s coffers for projects unlikely to reduce the overall cost of housing or be redirected to students in need. Testory’s admission to The Daily Cardinal that Housing has “no solidified plan” for students who cannot afford this mandatory fee is reprehensible and a despicable abandonment of Housing’s core values. What are prospective students or already admitted students supposed to do — guess if the University will waive the fee or provide aid?

Thanks to Housing, the first lesson most students will receive at this university is that it pays to have money. Gold and Silver Tier families who can afford to pay more up front — even if they spend the same amount as Bronze families who need to add money incrementally — will receive favorable treatment from the school through additional discounts and free perks. If your goal is to emulate airlines, may I recommend a special checkout line or an exclusive Gold Tier Lounge? Even your categories of bronze, silver and gold make it seem like a class competition to have more money to spend — those with money win first place. Instead of Plans 1, 2 and 3, or the Bucky, Bascom and Babcock Plans, you chose language charged with connotations of superiority and inferiority by virtue of the wealth into which you were born. Having attended countless training sessions around inclusive language as a Housing employee and requiring residents to go to such programs as well, this utter disregard of language’s impact or lack of foresight is one of the most mind-boggling aspects of this policy to me.

Yet, I am sadly not surprised. After years of never seeing University Housing and Dining make a significant effort to make itself more affordable — except working to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in dining halls, made possible through persistent advocacy by student leaders like Brooke Evans, Emily Biersdorf and the Working Class Student Union — why should I expect Housing to start now? In a conversation about such concerns with a senior University Housing administrator last year, I was reminded that Housing was a business and that some populations of students are not University Housing’s target market. Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King’s sentiments about the moral passivity of white moderates, I have come to the regrettable conclusion that the largest barrier to affordable housing for students is not predatory landlords and property management companies or new luxury high-rise buildings (who we know are in business for profit), but rather a University Housing administration more devoted to increasing revenue than increasing accessibility. A Housing division that is more interested in acting like a business than as a public service to all students at our state’s flagship public institution. A Housing administration who believes leadership consists of being slightly less worse than other Big 10 conference schools.

It does not have to be like this, though. Older relatives and family friends recall University Housing once being cheaper than off-campus housing with students often living on-campus until graduation in efforts to save money. Now the opposite is true. Housing costs have soared past inflation from $4,925 in 1998-99 (adjusted for inflation) to $7,975 (current 2017-18 rates), a total 62 percent increase in real cost. Director Novak argues, “The more students dine with us, the more affordable it is,” yet looking at data from the past decade, this does not seem to be the case. In 2007, Housing advised that average food expenditures were $592 per semester (adjusted for inflation), similar to the current average of $630 per semester. However, since 2007, there are about 8 percent more students living with University Housing, a jump from 6,905 in 2007 to 7,457 today (both numbers are the sum of each hall’s capacity). Although the real cost of food expenses remained similar, the base Housing fee increased 21 percent from $6,600 in 2007 (adjusted for inflation) to $7,975 today. With the data from the past decade showing that an increase in the number residents living in Housing had little impact on the average real cost of food and actually resulted in substantially higher total cost, how is this plan going to be different?

Last year as a house fellow, only two out of 42 of my residents returned to Housing. When I asked them why, there was the usual desire for more space and autonomy — but the second most stated reason was affordability. Next year, students will have to work 27 hours/week at $10/hr throughout the academic year to pay for the cheapest standard housing option. That requires 27 hours/week, well-above minimum wage just to cover housing costs — not tuition or other expenses. Such a demanding work schedule is known to hurt academic performance and delay graduation (thereby creating more financial burdens). Yet, University Housing knows how to run affordable halls. The Zoe Bayliss Women’s Cooperative, which at $4,652 for the academic year with 10 meals per week included, is less than half the price of the cheapest Bronze Tier plan in the rest of Housing. Why are there not more options like this offered by the University? If the housing division of the state’s public flagship university will not provide enough affordable places for students to live, who will?

Besides repealing this new mandatory fee, there are multiple ways Housing can work to be more accessible to students in need. UW Housing could offer fundraisers for a scholarship fund for housing-insecure students, perhaps with proceeds from a wing night, trivia events or a small tax at the Bean and Creamery. If this plan remains in place despite widespread pushback, Housing and Dining should offer at-cost and competitive pricing for produce and staple items. For example, bananas are 39 cents per pound at Kwik Trip versus 69 cents a piece with University Dining. The case is similar for items like eggs, milk and bread. The University could offer a 0 percent APR loan to students who demonstrate need, as well as free winter break housing and food accommodations to any resident in need. Furthermore, when the dining halls close over break, residents should be able to receive a portion of the new fee cash-back to spend off-campus, or Housing should pre-purchase non-perishable items for them to eat (or keep a dining facility open). Finally, stop building new McMansion-like student dormitories that are cost-shared among all Housing residents. There is insufficient affordable housing off-campus, whether in co-ops or apartments, and the University should take responsibility to expand affordable co-op-style housing options like Zoe Bayliss rather than building luxurious halls like Dejope, Smith, Ogg and Leopold. Several of these projects and many more have already been undertaken by low-income, housing-insecure and food-insecure students on campus, yet little action appears to have been taken.

Inaction does not come without a cost. Thousands of students who may otherwise succeed and thrive at this prestigious institution may choose to not attend or to not even apply knowing they cannot succeed in paying for a place to live or for food to eat. For many students, financial aid will not match the increase in costs like those imposed here by University Housing and Dining and there will continue to be a financial aid gap between students who receive sufficient aid and those who do not and subsequently cannot pay. By adding another unnecessary mandated cost, there will be a further increasing number of students priced out or deterred from entering and completing college and thereby never benefit from and contribute to the intellectual rigor, or the academic, financial and social resources that this institution offers. Will our university choose to help fuel generational economic mobility and serve all corners of our state, or will it exacerbate the privileged access the affluent have to both social capital and wealth? How many seminal moments of historical progress would have never occurred if those who had the power to enact change said, “that isn’t our job,” and remained more committed to an uncomfortable status-quo than to a difficult but necessary march toward justice and equity? I am disappointed to feel the need to write to my alma mater so soon after graduation, but the University continues to teach me that inaction is a choice. I felt that I could not remain silent as concerns from student activists are brushed aside and an increasing number of students will never have the chance to attend this school and share their ideas and grow our community.

Spencer is a former house fellow in the GreenHouse Learning Community. What are your thoughts on the proposed dining plan? Send all comments, questions and concerns to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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