Administration Admits Failure at Meal Plan Town Halls
In response to student complaints regarding Yeshiva University’s new undergraduate meal plan, informational sessions were held on the Wilf and Beren campuses on Wednesday, Nov. 21. Approximately 30 students were present at each session.
Representing the administration at the Beren event were Randy Apfelbaum, Chief Facilities and Administrative Officer, who was the primary speaker; Rachel Kraut, Director of Housing and Residence Life at the Beren Campus; Yoni Cohen, Director of Special Projects — who represented the President’s office; Jonathan Schwab, Director of Housing and Residence Life at the Wilf Campus and Dr. Karen Bacon, Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Schwab was the primary speaker at the Wilf event. Also in attendance at Wilf were Cohen; Rabbi Josh Weisberg, Senior Director of Student Life and Samuel Chasan, Director of Dining Services.
From the outset of his presentation, Schwab stated, “The people who would have made more sense to present tonight both were unavailable,” in reference to Dr. Chaim Nissel, Dean of Students — who was not present at either session — and Apfelbaum.
Before the meeting, Mili Chizhik (SCW ‘22), a student who has advocated against the current meal plan, mentioned that she had set up at least two meetings with Apfelbaum in the last two weeks, both of which he canceled, one of which was canceled less than 45 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to take place. Apfelbaum canceled the other meeting because he had to attend a funeral in Toronto, Chizhik said. In response to the informational session, she remarked, “I don’t think it’ll be helpful. And ask me after the meeting and I’ll say the same thing.”
The first part of both events was devoted to a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the university to address common concerns of students regarding the plan. After the PowerPoint presentation, a question and answer session was held.
Last year’s meal plan consisted of three different tiers and ran on a declining balance program. First-year students were unable to buy in under the lowest tier. According to Apfelbaum and Schwab, the administration heard a number of complaints regarding this plan. One major complaint was that food prices were too high, especially when compared to outside vendors. Additionally, it was found that students had excess money left over at the end of the semester that was not refundable.
“Both of these are pretty large intractable problems,” Schwab stated. “But we wanted to create a system that allows, at least optically, for this to not look like as much of a problem.”
Apfelbaum and Schwab emphasized the expense of running University Dining Services. They explained that the expensive nature of the meal plan is to counterbalance the overhead costs — the fixed costs to run a cafeteria operation. Furthermore, while other universities have a non-kosher operation to offset the price of the kosher operation, there is no such system in YU.
Prior to the creation of the current meal plan, Apfelbaum and his team looked at the meal plans of other universities in New York. Once the current plan was formulated, Apfelbaum laid it out to student focus-groups on both campuses. According to Apfelbaum, the students “had some comments and tweaks which were incorporated. But, generally, the reaction was positive. Otherwise, it would have been dead on arrival.”
Yossi Zimilover (SSSB ‘20), a member of the focus group, commented, “At the focus group, they presented the plan and its reasoning. It kind of made sense at first but obviously, we didn’t know that they were lowering the buying power of people and we weren’t going to whip out our calculators and figure it out.”
Another member of the focus group who agreed to comment on the condition of anonymity also recalled that students in the group “were unfazed and onboard” with the plan which he “personally found pretty shocking at the time.” “I thought that people were not going to be too keen with having half of their money not be spendable,” he stated.
The new meal plan split the overhead costs at the beginning of the process. Instead of students paying for overhead costs throughout the semester, a fixed $675 fee was instituted on both the reduced and standard plans. The up-front fee allowed the university to reduce all food prices by approximately 40%. Students would be able to add funds with no further fees incurred. Under the new plan, there are only two tiers priced at $1,500 and $1,750 per semester. Furthermore, first-year students could buy into the lowest plan as opposed to last year’s plan.
Apfelbaum explained that overhead and the cost of labor increased this year. If the status quo meal plan was kept, prices would have been raised by 5-8%. “We didn’t raise the prices because we figured that there was only so much change we can do in a period of time,” stated Apfelbaum. “We actually took the hit.”
Apfelbaum mentioned complaints he received following the implementation of the current plan from students who were running out of money early in the semester. “In almost every case of students who complain that they are running out of money, they were on a higher meal plan last year,” Apfelbaum said. “They will run out of money because they are eating at the same rate … but they just don’t have enough money on the plan.”
Both Apfelbaum and Schwab indicated that they would be interested in making changes to the meal plan in the future. Apfelbaum told Beren students that he will gather more student focus groups to suggest changes to the current meal plan. “If the changes are technically feasible and financially feasible we will absolutely make changes,” he said.
After both meetings, Dean Nissel remarked, “We hear you and will be making changes. I am hopeful that the changes will be announced within a few days.”
“I thought the meeting was a good opportunity for us to hear directly from the students and fully understand their frustration,” Cohen said. “The Food Service department has been working on a solution to these issues and we hope to have something in the near future.”
A common theme throughout the meeting was that students were more concerned about their day-to-day experience in the cafeteria than the technicalities of the plan. One student even said that she can only eat three bagels a day in order to afford to eat in the cafeteria.
Another student relating her experiences said, “I decided to become kosher. I decided to take this challenge on myself. I am grateful that we have a kosher cafeteria and it is easy to be kosher when I’m here, but now I am literally working my a-- off every day of the week to pay for the $3,000 of my reduced meal plan and now I see that I have $100 left.”
“What’s the point of the meal plan? I am hungry. I eat five meals a week in the caf and I am out of money already,” remarked one student. “The only facts that I know right now is that my parents are struggling to make ends meet. I am in Yeshiva University and I don’t have enough money for food.”
As Apfelbaum attempted to respond to this student he was met with interruptions from a number of students. During the disturbance, Kraut stated, “I’m going to interrupt because people are getting angry and frustrated because I believe you guys are thinking you’re not being heard. You are. Okay? I think the responses [by Apfelbaum] are logical and statistical and I hear you. You’re hungry … I get it, I really do. We don’t want you to be hungry. We don’t want you to eat three bagels a day.”
The interruptions did not stop there. While Apfelbaum suggested raising the lowest plan per semester from $1,500 to $1,700 one student shouted, “Or you should just stop taking our money!” The student continued to repeatedly interrupt as Apfelbaum attempted to answer her.
When Cohen offered to show a student “emails from hundreds of students” complaining about leftover money on their plans in years past, a student interrupted him saying, “Okay. Now reply to every single one and say: ‘What if we took away all of your money and you ended up running out?’”
“Excuse me. You weren’t listening. We aren’t taking away your money. We are dividing your money into two different buckets as opposed to keeping it together,” Apfelbaum responded.
Apfelbaum asked by a raise of hands how many people signed onto the lower meal plan as opposed to the higher plan. Almost every student in the room raised their hands
Cohen suggested that anyone who wants him to compare their spending habits between this year and last year should approach him after the session. In response, a student retorted, “I feel like you want us to prove it to you and it is frustrating.”
When Apfelbaum referred to overhead costs as a rationale for the membership fee, Kraut replied, “They don’t care. They don’t care how much you pay for staff and pots. They’re students.”
At one point during the session, Kraut admitted that she didn’t think the new meal plan “worked for the majority [of students].” “It needs to be tweaked and changed in different ways,” she stated.
Throughout the session, Schwab apologized to students for the way the implementation of the meal plan was handled by the university. “For students to be frustrated by it is entirely reasonable and understandable,” he said. “I think we could have done a better job alerting the students that the meal plan was changed.”
When students asked what options the university was looking into implementing for next semester, Schwab stated that they are considering “implementing a new meal plan that is just $1,500 with no membership and no discount,” among other options.
After one student suggested the implementation of a meal swipe system, Schwab indicated that it would be a complicated system to switch over to. “It can be particularly complicated given the nature of kosher food and the eating habits of Modern Orthodox Jews which might be different than other college populations. It’s something that we can explore, but very carefully. It has the potential for making things worse,” Schwab stated.
Schwab indicated that he had trouble understanding why students who are on the same plan as last year are running out of money earlier. According to Schwab, Dining Services have noticed that they are ordering more food than last year, which means that students are eating more food overall. One student suggested that people may have gotten “sticker shock” last year. “People aren’t thinking about the balance; they’re just thinking about the price. They don’t think how much it is comparatively,” the student remarked.
One student expressed that he did not see a notification of the new plan by the university prior to its implementation. Schwab responded that it was “actually spelled out in the housing application.” He continued, “I think people just blew right past that because the meal plan is the least interesting part of the housing application.”
After being asked whether the goal of the cafeteria is to be a moneymaker for the university, Weisberg stated that “the dining service program is part of the larger not-for-profit status of the university. Any profit that the dining service makes has to be reinvested into the university.”
Akiva Poppers (SSSB ‘22) presented mathematical calculations which he claimed showed that “the only scenario where a student is better off is when he is on the standard plan and spends little to no money in the restaurants. Should a student on the standard plan use all of their available Omni money [in restaurants], the comparative value of last year’s plan to this year’s plan computes to a loss of 6.5%.”
Poppers concluded that if a student spends $500 in Omni funds at restaurants — the yearly amount allocated on the standard meal plan — “they would need to add $375 to their standard plan to get to a breakeven point… If a student on the reduced plan uses up all $300 of available restaurant money, they will lose $270 in value” compared to last year's reduced plan. “When students say that the new caf plan is stealing money, they’re right. It’s just not in the way they think,” Poppers asserted.
Cohen invited Poppers to speak with him after the event to review his math. Poppers told The Commentator that Cohen mentioned to him that if Poppers’ math was correct, someone in the administration erred when calculating the pricing of the plans for this year. If that was the case, the plan would be illogical to use in future semesters, according to Cohen. Cohen told Poppers that he will schedule a meeting between them and Apfelbaum to further discuss the details of his calculations.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a comment from Yoni Cohen reflecting on the informational sessions.
Photo Credit: Michelle Naim