Students last semester spent approximately half a million dollars more in dining halls than they did in Fall 2017 as a result of the new mandatory meal plan for incoming students, according to UW-Madison officials.
University Housing Director Jeff Novak said the meal plan, which requires first-year students living in residence halls to make a $1,400 minimum deposit onto their Wiscards for on-campus dining, “rebounded” the dining program from where it was “a few years ago.”
The plan, last year and introduced last semester, was met with backlash and from students who said the mandatory nature of the program negatively impacted low-income students and those with dietary restrictions. Dining officials said the plan aimed not only to be transparent with students about their dining expenses, but also to “” a dining program that had seen a decline in sales.
Novak said he is “pleased with the implementation” of the plan. He noted these additional funds will be reinvested into the dining program, particularly in the form of labor because dining halls “are very short staffed.”
“This helps stabilize our program,” Novak said. “To be able to maintain the hours that we need and the appropriate staffing.”
University Dining staff could not immediately “research/confirm” exact spending and expense numbers for previous semesters, according to an email from Novak.
While much of the $500,000 increase in spending is due to the meal plan, Division of Dining spokesperson Brendon Dybdahl attributed some of the growth to UW-Madison’s enrollment increase.
According to Dybdahl, this year’s freshman class was approximately 250 students larger than the previous year’s.
“The vast majority of those students live in university residence halls,” Dybdahl said. “We believe that this growth also played a large role in this year’s increase in student spending with dining.”
Students largely choose more expensive meal plan tiers
Despite last year’s negative reactions to the meal plan, the majority of first-year students living in residence halls in Fall 2018 selected high-tiered options in the meal program.
Data from University Housing show that 73 percent of the 6,848 students who signed housing contracts chose to deposit a minimum of $2,100 exclusively for on-campus dining.
Fifty-four percent of students signed up for the $2,100 Tier 2 plan, while 19 percent chose the Tier 3 plan, which requires a minimum deposit of $3,100. Just over a quarter of the students optioned for the minimum deposit of $1,400.
Yogev Ben-Yitschak, a UW-Madison junior and member of the Dining and Housing Advisory Board, which ensures students have a voice in the dining program, said he did not expect for the majority of students to have an issue with the plan. He added that students took issue with it because it negatively impacted low-income students and those with religious and dietary restrictions, not the majority of students.
“I would say a lot of students, even before the meal plan, spent upwards of $2,000 in the dining halls anyways,” Ben-Yitschak said. “[But] it is safe to assume that a good [number] of people who chose the lowest tiered plan would not have chosen a meal plan had there been an option to not have a meal plan.”
Officials plan to increase price of higher tiers
Next year, University Housing will increase the minimum deposits for Tier 2 and Tier 3 by $100 and $50 respectively — in line with “typical, annual” increases in food prices, according to Dybdahl.
While officials initially considered increasing the minimum $1,400 tier by $50, a conversation with students on the Dining and Housing Advisory Board led them to reconsider.
“We are trying to find ways to cover [costs] in other ways that don’t force [University Dining] to raise meal plan prices,” Ben-Yitschak said. “We don’t want to get to a point where [they are] raising it $50 every year. That would be really bad.”