A new dining policy has sparked backlash on campus, but UW-Madison housing leaders are hoping that providing additional information will help quell students’ concerns.
University Housing announced recently it would begin requiring dorm residents to spend a minimum of $1,400 on dining — in quarterly $350 deposits — effective next school year. The plan would only apply to incoming students, and not students who remain in the dorms for an additional year.
The change was necessary, University Housing Director Jeff Novak said, because of growing concern from parents and students over being in the dark about how much dining is expected to cost. Novak said the new plan will provide a guideline so that students can hold themselves accountable.
Housing leaders arrived at the $1,400 figure from observing the average amount students currently spend at the dining hall. A statement from University Housing also clarified that “financial aid funds can be used to cover the cost of the meal plan.”
The department said it consulted students in creating and adopting the new policy, but after the plan became public, students rushed to social media to express their displeasure.
“It's just another money grab on housing's part and another reason why kids avoid the dorms,” UW-Madison student Laura Kelley wrote on Facebook.
“I could not be more devastated and this will not go forward without being fought and addressed,” wrote Brooke Evans, a UW-Madison alumna who worked with housing leaders to implement food-stamp accessible dining halls when she was a student.
Students decried the plan for a myriad of reasons — some said it would force students to spend money they may not have otherwise, some bemoaned the loss of extra money if not used by the end of the year, and still others claimed the policy would disproportionately hurt low-income students.
But in an interview with The Daily Cardinal, Novak noted that the $1,400 minimum for a year is still the lowest in the Big Ten. Many other schools in the conference require students to shell out large sums of money on all-you-can-eat dining plans, and Novak said UW-Madison’s unique à la carte system allows the school to keep prices low.
To put the new minimum dining deposit in perspective, the 11-meal-per-week plan at the University of Minnesota requires students to pay $3,750 per year, according to the school’s website.
At the University of Illinois, students can pay the more reasonable price of $2,160 — but on that plan they only get six meals per week, and the plan is still significantly more expensive than UW-Madison’s policy, which they say amounts to roughly nine meals per week.
Some students also assumed the plan would require an upfront payment of $1,400 or more, but Novak assured them that students would be asked to pay quarterly — so, on the cheapest plan, housing residents would deposit $350 at a time.
But still, even requiring $1,400 in total could be a burden for some, student leaders said.
Zaakir Adbul-wahid, the outreach director for UW-Madison’s Working Class Student Union, said the plan “was pushed under the guise of helping students with financial planning, but it will do the opposite and force them to put more money into the university.”
“UW dining facilities do not offer the most cost-effective or nutritional foods available to students on this campus, but nonetheless this policy forces students to spend over a thousand dollars on a handful of expensive and potentially unhealthy foods,” Adbul-wahid said. “[The plan] will hinder working class students’ ability to thrive.”
Abdul-wahid also noted that “many students on this campus have very strict dietary needs which university dining facilities may simply be unable to meet.” In a public Facebook post, Associated Students of Madison Outreach Director Yogev Ben-Yitschak agreed, lamenting the lack of kosher options in some of the dining halls.
In response, Novak said “while we have a number of Kosher-certified options, now we are looking to improve and expand those options,” and that the university does not offer a resident discount on those foods because “the price now is at cost. We charge exactly what we pay for each kosher item.”
Another concern surrounds the fact that under the new policy, if students do not use the $1,400 during the school year, the money is forfeited. The money does go back to the university if not used, but Novak assured students that there is ample opportunity to use all the funds.
Novak said his department would be sending emails to students near the end of the year to remind them they still have money in their account, and he suggested that students who have extra funds do some of their grocery shopping at convenience stores within the dining halls. He also noted that at other schools with all-you-can-eat systems, students lose leftover meals every week if they don’t use their “swipes.”
In response to concerns about effects on low-income students, Novak said “we see our students [already] spend this money in our facilities and on campus,” and highlighted that the new system makes it possible to pay for food directly with financial aid funds.
Additionally, he touted UW-Madison’s unique food stamp initiative, which began earlier this year, as an indication that “food insecurity is a very high priority” for University Housing. Abdul-wahid also praised the food stamp program but said the new dining policy represents a step back on addressing student hunger.
University Housing will work with the financial aid office to make sure the implementation process runs smoothly, Novak said. Additionally, Associated Students of Madison leaders will meet with Novak Friday and said they would not issue a statement about the policy until after they had a chance to speak with him.
Despite the criticism, Novak insisted that the new policy would help UW-Madison’s dining halls remain the cheapest in the Big Ten.
“These types of programs keep prices down,” Novak said. “The more students dine with us, the more affordable it is.”
UPDATE Dec. 1, 11:27 a.m.: This post was updated for additional clarity.