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Friday, March 24, 2023
Rena Newman — a UW-Madison student — helped organize a recent protest against the meal plan at Gordon Dining Hall.

Rena Newman — a UW-Madison student — helped organize a recent protest against the meal plan at Gordon Dining Hall.

Amid student protests, official says meal plan will “financially stabilize” dining program

Petitions have been circulated. Meetings have been held. Trays have been kicked and thrown across the Gordon Dining Hall floor.

After months of opposition to the new university meal plan requiring incoming students to spend a minimum of $1,400 in dining halls, a UW-Madison official said Wednesday the plan is an effort to “financially stabilize” the dining program.

While officials previously said the plan was an attempt to be “upfront” and “transparent” with parents concerned about their student’s spending in dining halls, students had long questioned that claim.

According to Housing Director Jeff Novak, UW-Madison Dining’s sales were declining “because of the à la carte nature” of the program. He said students were choosing to dine at many different locations — both on and off campus — and that the new plan would give officials a better understanding of yearly revenue.

“In order to establish a baseline understanding of what our revenues will be each year, we chose to go with what we feel is a very fair and balanced minimum requirement,” he said, adding the plan will ensure long-term stability for University Dining.

Novak said the dining program is not struggling financially and added that most dining hall models need a baseline understanding of yearly revenues to appropriately price items.

He said that unlike most dining programs, UW-Madison allows unused funds to carry over into the next academic year, which will add flexibility for students.

The meal plan — revealed in early December — requires incoming students living in residence halls to deposit a minimum of $1,400 into a specific Resident Food Account on their WisCards. Money can be loaded in quarterly deposits of $350 and can only be spent in on-campus dining locations.

Rena Newman, a UW-Madison student who has been opposed to the meal plan since it was first revealed, said students know University Housing is looking to make money, but that “bleeding low-income students of their money” is not the way to do it.

“If you need to fill your budget, you can’t do that at the hands of hard-working students,” Newman said. “That’s just not fair.”

Novak said meal plans are present across the country and noted that the plan is similar to and cheaper than other Big Ten meal plans.

He does not anticipate any more changes to the meal plan.

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Newman acknowledged that the university’s meal plan is cheaper than others in the conference, but said this does not justify its existence. They said low-income students and those with dietary restrictions at other schools have been hurt by their meal plans, just as students here will be.

“It is not a better alternative just because it is slightly less harmful than things already harming students,” they said.

Newman was one of the organizers of a recent protest where approximately 100 UW-Madison students and community members gathered in Gordon to share their outrage over the plan.

At the event, protesters read testimonies describing how the meal plan will negatively impact low-income students and those with dietary restrictions. They chanted slogans like “I can’t eat” before marching through the market area of the dining hall and eventually blocking the entrance to the market for about 15 minutes.

Newman said this protest was one of the first steps of a more active effort to try to get the university to understand the opposing point of view.

According to Newman, there are “people from all different kinds of organizations” talking about the plan through group chats and meetings. Newman said these people want to create a “united front” where hundreds of students can come together to continue to meet with faculty, write opinion pieces in papers and demonstrate against the plan.

Newman added that there are so many different organizations opposing the plan that they are unsure of what some of these opposition tactics will look like. They mentioned talk of more demonstrations in dining halls, marches and a potential boycott of University Dining as some of these tactics.

“Things are going to escalate,” they said. “I’m not totally sure what that escalation is going to look like because there are so many possibilities. We want to force [administration] to do the right thing if they are not going to do that on their own.”

Novak said the university respects the students’ right to protest peacefully and will continue to work with students and address the concerns that they have.

Despite this, Newman said the opposition will not stop until this plan that “creates more hoops to jump through for students who are already working so hard to be able to come to this institution” is abolished.

“There are going to be a lot of different tactics,” they said. “Some people are going to like some more than others.”

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