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Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

The Reality of A La Carte Meal Plans

If your holidays were anything like mine freshman year, your grandma constantly questions whether you’re getting enough to eat at school. As a 6 foot 3 inch Shaggy from Scooby Doo look-alike, the answer, after my first three months of BC dining, was “no.” Freshman year I went to bed hungry many nights thanks to BC’s dining plan, and I don’t think I’m alone. 

The Boston College mandatory meal plan for first years and sophomores consists of $2,825 per semester which can be spent on a la carte meals at campus locations and expires at the end of each school year. According to the school’s own calculations, students can spend $26 of their meal plan each day of the semester without running out, and the same website claims that this “meets most students' dining needs.” 

I talked to Shaun Carey (MCAS ‘26) about one Monday-Friday period this semester where he reported spending $203.15 of his meal plan, an average of just under $41 a day. Along with snacks and an additional $30 of outside groceries to supplement his campus dining, he reported feeling satisfied; but at $41 a day, Carey’s meal plan is going to come up short by almost a full half semester. This is a common theme among students at BC. 

Of course, food costs money and we can’t expect our school to give us food, or anything else, without trying to squeeze every last drop of cash from the interaction. College dining can never be ideal, but there is a central problem with the framing of the BC meal plan which schools that follow the swipe system do not have: the emphasis on spending money. 

Conversations around food at BC too often end up in a comparison of who in a friend group spends more or less. With such a tangible measure of how much you eat compared to the “average”–$26 a day in expectation–and compared to your other friends, dining can quickly become uncomfortable. Throughout my sophomore year I felt like I was doing something wrong by running out of money so quickly, but really, for many, the only way to not be hungry is to spend that extra money. 

The pricing of food matters too. When the cheapest entrees for lunch and dinner will cost you over $10 per meal, keeping your spending down to the expected amount is not only hard, but unhealthy. Especially when the portions of a single meal aren’t nearly big enough to keep you fueled throughout the day on their own. 

Food anxiety is a big deal on college campuses regardless of the school’s particular meal plan. Students enter a realm of near total independence in regard to their daily schedules, including meal times and meal options, for most likely the first time in their lives. According to a 2013 study by the National Eating Disorder Association, 10-20% of college women are affected by an eating disorder, compared with 4-10% of men. There are lots of triggers for these kinds of issues, and all-you-can-eat swipe dining plans raise problems of their own, but making food harder to acquire at the volume many students need to feel energetic and happy on a daily basis is a problem.

When I was a freshman, I didn’t know how to deal with my nutrition, and I had no guidance. Buying a small breakfast and one entree for both lunch and dinner is the way the meal plan encourages you to spend. You get into one line and you order one entree. If you want to get into another line and order another entree, that’ll often keep you waiting 10 minutes longer or more. If you want to order two entrees in the same line you hold up the people behind you and often break the service rhythm of the dining staff, causing confusion and more line delays. Plus, looking at the cash register at the end of your transaction and seeing $30 or more is not a good feeling, especially when portion sizes are as small as they are. At this “normal” level of eating I was hungry all the time, and in sophomore year when I started spending enough to feel good, I quickly ran out of meal plan money. Now the anxiety came from having to rely on friends to buy food for me. 

At this point you might be wondering why BC uses this a la carte plan instead of the swipe system present at many other schools. Under the Northeastern meal plan, once you swipe into the dining hall, you can stay and eat however much you want. This eliminates a couple of key issues with BC’s meal plan. First, under an all-you-can-eat swipe system each person can eat according to their need. This makes sense, because some people simply need more food than others, and saying the same exact daily  allowance “meets the dining needs” of both a student participating in club athletics, and one who goes to the gym once or twice a week is completely nonsensical. The other thing this eliminates is the creeping anxiety of running out of money. Your meal swipes reset every week, no matter how many times you went into the dining hall. Or, you could buy unlimited swipes.

BC is quick to point out the cost associated with swipe dining. The university provides an infographic comparing its meal plan to that of other schools. What you’ll notice is BC’s plan is listed as the cheapest of the bunch. All-you-can-eat swipe meal plans are more expensive, but only because they offer you more food. 

At Northeastern, the 7 meals per week plan is cheaper than the BC plan, but 12 meals a week will cost you a little over $500 more, and if you want the unlimited plan you will be paying out $4,405 each semester. The cost is certainly daunting, and the flexibility that the a la carte system provides is nice in some ways. 

But for students like Carey, once you run out of Boston College meal plan money you still have to eat. That means spending more money on off campus dining and groceries, or buying more meal plan money from BC. At $41 a day every week for 15 weeks Carey will be spending $4,305 of dining money to satisfy his appetite. At BC you have the option of buying into the Gold Upgrade, which provides you with $4,205 of dining money for $4,200. This is very close to how much you’d have to spend to get unlimited food at Northeastern. Is the extra flexibility worth all that much compared to the freedom of not having to stress about your spending on food all year?

BC obviously argues yes, and perhaps they’re right. Eating at BC might prepare us more for the real world. In life, the creeping anxiety of watching money drain from your bank account is all too real. In social circles, the ability to sit with your friends for dinner even if you don’t want to buy anything is a nice luxury. The dining halls at BC double as study spaces for a lot of students who like the ambient noise, or the energy of occasionally running into a friend. I have never been to college at a school with a dining plan other than BC’s so maybe we just have to make the most of what we have. 

That being said, there are definitely issues, and complacency is not the answer. If you checked out the Northeastern dining informational poster, you’ll notice that their registered dietician is featured front and center, along with her email and phone number. BC dining’s infographic seems more concerned with comparing itself to other schools than providing useful information to students. 

Despite that, there is a way to get nutritional advice on campus that I was not fully aware of until I wrote this article. First of all, BC does have a nutritionist, who works as a part of BC dining, who you can schedule appointments with. Additionally, the center for student wellness offers peer wellness coaching, meeting one on one with another student who is trained in walking you through nutritional goals. These are cool services, but many students simply aren’t aware of them. 

Maybe the a la carte system is secretly a good thing. Maybe it’s getting us ready for life in the real world, where we’ll have to balance our budget and make well thought out, informed decisions about the food we eat. If that’s what Boston College is going for, I support that. But if that’s the case, they have a responsibility to guide us in a way that they currently aren’t. There are people on campus who are trying, and if the university won’t make us aware of them, it’s our job to help our fellow students by bringing that to light. 

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