Editor’s Column – Breaking the Bank to Break Bread

Vanessa Persico

Everyone knows that Coop prices are a scandal and that it’s cheaper to cook for yourself. If you have a meal plan, though, this might be a shock: it’s more cost-effective to frequent either dining hall without a plan than it is to use one.

Consider this: Colgate’s 14-meal plan costs $4,190 for the year, which I estimate at 32 weeks. A total of 448 meals (14 x 32) then, would cost $4,190. This figures out to each individual meal costing $9.35. Following the same logic, the $3,320 ten-meal plan costs you $10.37 per meal, and the $1,805 five-meal plan costs you something like $11.00 per meal.?

In short, what you are effectively spending when you hand over your card and say “meal plan” at either dining hall is somewhere between $9.00 and $11.00, depending on your plan, but regardless of the meal period.

Is this a good deal? When I was figuring this out for myself over the summer, I thought the answer to that question might depend on whether the alternative was cooking for oneself or eating at the dining halls sans meal plan. I found, though, that these meal plans are a royal pain in the pocketbook either way.?

Let me get the obvious part out of the way first (bear with me): the cost of a meal if you cook for yourself is almost always less than the cost of any Sodexho meal on one of these meal plans. Think of what goes into, say, a homemade dinner for one of chicken breast with rice and a vegetable. If you’re liberal with the cooking oil, you might use 50 cents’ worth. Salt, pepper, butter, and other seasonings might be another 50 cents — again if you’re liberal. Let’s say for the sake of argument your beverage costs you around a dollar; a chicken breast might be one out of six in a $6.00 package; the rice and vegetables might total to $3.50. Then, of course, there are the start-up costs of cookware and flatware (if they last you the year, the costs per meal are probably negligible), and non-monetary costs, which I’ll address later. Still, though, this meal is costing you no more than $7.00, because you cooked on your own.

The other alternative is, of course, eating at the dining hall sometimes and cooking on your own other times (most students with a 5, 10, or 14-meal plan exercise this option anyway; they just pay Sodexho up front for it). This is the part that surprised me the most: keeping in mind the numbers I described above, consider the meal periods. The most they let you take out of the Coop during a breakfast meal period is a little under $5.00 worth of food. During a lunch or late-night meal period, a little under $8. And the value of a dinner meal — the most expensive meal period — at the Coop is $8.85. Dinner specials usually don’t fill that up, so a lot of people end up buying muffins or fruit or yogurt that they didn’t actually want in order to make the most out of the meal plan — but they’re still getting screwed.

Even if you really, truly are going to eat 14 dinner meal plans a week (which you can’t do, seeing as they don’t let you have more than one swipe during a meal period), you’re still wasting more than $200 a year if you do it with a meal plan (meal value with 14-meal plan [9.35] – dinner meal value at Coop [8.85] = waste per meal [.50]. Waste per meal [.50] x number of meals per year [448] = $224).?

I’ll concede that there is a convenience cost as well, particularly in the cook-on-your-own option, which involves time spent going to and from the grocery store and apartment, not to mention the hassle of setup and cleanup. (I should note that dinner is, for me anyway, the most convenient meal to prepare and cook at my apartment, and that dinners are the least wasteful meals on the meal plan.) And even eating without a meal plan at the dining halls requires keeping a steady balance on one’s ‘Gate card, something that could be considered an inconvenience for those who would rather use real-people plastic unless forced to do otherwise (cough cough laundry cough cough).

But seriously…$9.35 swiped away for an Early Riser and OJ that would cost you $4.50 normally? A good friend of mine reacted to these numbers by proposing that “breakfast” be spelled “breakfist” from now on. You can gather why.