Meals, Money, and Mather: What's in it For Us?


Trinity College is going through what might be described as an identity crisis. Trinity is changing—its students, its buildings, its staff, its role as a liberal arts college—and that has impinged on a sense of common community. Few things bring everyone on campus together more than Mather Dining Hall. In a fitting parallel with the rest of campus, Mather Hall and Chartwells are themselves the center of some controversy and change. Chartwells, in a dialogue with Trinity College, has initiated serious reforms to satisfy the needs of the community. However much Chartwells might change, I think the concerns over Mather miss an essential point salient to the entire enterprise.

The basic meal plan is unrealistic. Few students use all their meals in each week, a conclusion I’ve reached after a series of informal interviews with various members of campus from all walks of life. Athletes have practice, games, study sessions. Clubs have meetings. People go to Blueback Square on the weekends. The “traditional meal plan” accounts for 19 meals at Mather, and costs as of Fall 2018 $2,575, a figure that has been raised in past years. Exemptions are rare and hard to come by, and purposefully so—Chartwells holds a monopoly over dining at Trinity College, making it akin to social security. We all pay in so that everyone can use Mather, as the costs involved in the regular maintenance of a decent dining hall are high. This scheme isn’t wrong and is common to college campuses the nation over, but that can’t excuse the fact that the basic plan is unrealistic. How many students have paid for meals they didn’t eat? How many times have swipes just evaporated with nothing to show on the student’s end? How many of us can honestly say that we got our swipe’s worth of Mountain Dew, chips, and pop-tarts in lieu of a meal?

It bears making the point that this is the cheapest meal plan, which features, for almost all the people I’ve interviewed, many wasted meals. We must pay for the freedom to spend our dining dollars elsewhere, with the $3,000 15 Flex or 225 Block plans, and even then, according to one perturbed student, the money spent at the Cave or the Bistro never amounted to the increased costs of their plan. Not only are students paying more to spend the money already out of their pockets, but they often end up unable to spend all their dining dollars – meaning that even with this costly freedom, people are still paying for meals they don’t eat. To be fair, operating as a dining service on campus is hardly a walk in the park, and Goldberg’s difficulties are demonstrative of that point. And it’s not like Chartwells is totally obstinate, having introduced new policies and a 15-5 Flex plan, for no extra cost, that gets at this basic problem. That doesn’t solve our problem, though.

I can imagine two likely scenarios that clarify this issue. Either Chartwells is charging students the real cost of their services—that they could not operate unless every student paid at least the basic meal plan amount—in which case prices should be adjusted to reflect that reality, and meal plans structured around practical lines, instead of misguiding and gouging a not insignificant number of students. Or, that Chartwells operates under the conviction that the average student eats their full 19 meals of the basic plan, or spends the leftovers in other ways, which is simply not the case.

If an exception can be made for seniors, with their 10-meal, $2,000 plan, there should be a similar plan for a large amount of people who don’t—and often can’t—make full use of the traditional 19. College is expensive, that’s obvious enough, and at a place like Trinity, where costs are rising by the day, we can ill afford as students to lose the ten bucks or so per meal lost. There needs to be a reckoning of what the students want and what Chartwells can provide, a discussion informed not by an assumption of malicious intent, but by sound financial reality. The next time you swipe in at Mather, think about the money you could be saving with a practical meal plan instead of being practically fined for missing a meal, or several. This is my opinion, but I ask you—do you think losing fifty dollars a week for meals you don’t eat is worth it?

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