By: The Commentator Editorial Board  | 

It Is Time to End the Failed Dining Plan Experiment

In response to student dissatisfaction with high cafeteria prices and extra money left over at the end of the year, the YU Dining Club plans were radically restructured at the beginning of this year. The resultant system has been a mess, leaving many students with little to no money left with weeks to go in the semester. Chief Facilities and Administrative Officer Randy Apfelbaum has contended that the new system was the administration’s response to frustrations expressed in student focus groups last year, but it remains unclear how those comments led to a plan so unpopular that over 300 students have signed a petition in protest.

What is clear is that the new plan, which is both confusing and expensive, negatively affects most students. It has become nearly impossible to live off the lower level meal plan without resorting to adding additional funds. The reaction of the administration to frustrated students has been to emphasize the optics of the discount while dismissing the significant financial concerns of the student body. Additionally, while administrators contend that the membership fee is necessary to recoup operating expenses, they have neglected to offer a convincing explanation as to how the overhead costs of YU’s Dining Services exceed those of other kosher food establishments and supermarkets.

The new system is a violation of the trust we placed in YU’s administration to act in our best interest and must immediately be replaced with one that takes into account the difficult financial situation of many of YU’s students, treating them with the dignity they deserve. Moving forward, our trust in YU can only be restored through increased transparency and meaningful dialogue with those making decisions that impact us on our behalf.

Perhaps the most basic flaw with the new plan is that it charges students too much for too little. For the average student — who is on the lower of the two plans — the flat “membership” fee of $1,350 for the year that they must now pay amounts to more than all of the discount they will receive over the course of the year for being a member. Students have been urged to add more of their own money to their chosen plan over the course of the semester in order to break even, since all funds added are discounted in the cafeterias. It’s important to keep in mind that however much money a student has left over at the end of the year, their membership fee has already been paid. To recover that fee, students are left scrambling to buy as much as they can from YU’s cafeterias at the discounted rate (participating restaurants do not discount their prices) to avoid suffering a loss.

All of these complex calculations speak to the other major flaw with the plan: it is not designed with transparency in mind. Although some food items have both full and discounted prices listed in the cafeteria, some do not have a listed discount price; the membership discount is applied only after an item is purchased, which makes scanning the item’s price to ascertain the discounted price useless. Students have been left unable to budget themselves for the semester due to the frustratingly convoluted new payment system.

One student concern that the new plan was supposed to solve was remaining funds left over at the end of the year. But out-of-towners and international students, an increasingly growing group on campus, had the opposite problem. Unlike so-called “in-towners,” these students often remain on campus for Shabbat, eat meals in the YU cafeterias on Fridays and Sundays, and buy food on school holidays. As last semester came to an end, these students were running out of funds, with many forced to borrow their friends’ “caf” cards to buy food. With the new plan, the YU administration has sent a message that these students will be left to fend for themselves. 

Three months into the semester, only after the student outcry over the plan reached its breaking point — with articles in both The Observer and The Commentator, as well as the aforementioned student petition — the administration finally caved, only to schedule two “info” sessions with the stated goal of responding to student questions to “better explain” the plans as they are, with no mention of any intention to change them. Over the course of the sessions, approximately 60 students questioned representatives from the administration, searching for some logic that would explain why the plan was changed in the first place and what benefit the new plan was supposed to infer on the students.

The sessions did little to assuage students’ contentions. The Wilf Campus forum was led by Director of University Housing and Residence Life Jonathan Schwab, who confessed to attendees that he was not one of “the people who would have made more sense to present” and that he was merely reading off a PowerPoint created by another university administrator. At the session, Schwab admitted that things “could have been done a lot better” — and they certainly should have. Meanwhile, at the Beren session, one administrator patronizingly responded to Apfelbaum’s statement on overhead costs by remarking that students “don’t care. They don’t care how much you pay for staff and pots. They’re students.”

One Beren student’s remarks in opposition to the dining plan revisions speak to the heart of the issue and the imperative need for change. “I decided to become kosher,” remarked the student at the Beren info session. “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.” 

Hearing the calls of struggling students at info sessions is just the tip of the iceberg and does little to rectify the predicament so many of our peers are facing. Tangible action must now be taken to right the wrong that was perpetrated upon ourselves and our classmates.

Accordingly, we feel it is imperative that the university solve the problems that they themselves created. Reverting to the simpler dining plan structure from last year is the most basic step that must be taken. Recognizing that cafeteria items are expensive, the university ought to look into ways to mitigate these costs for students, who are already struggling to make ends meet and pay YU’s hefty tuition and fees. Recognizing student frustration with leftover meal plan balances, perhaps the university should push for solutions to return unused funds back to students. Either way, something must be done to fix the broken system and end the injustice that has been committed against the student body of YU.