By Matt Braunstein
As the end of the semester grows near, some residential students at Stony Brook University find themselves in a bothersome and familiar predicament. While others deal primarily with the stress of grades and finals, these students must also concern themselves with how they will manage to eat.
For the past five years at SBU, the university has implemented a campus-wide declining balance meal plan rather than a buffet-style meal plan used at other SUNY universities. According to Angela Agnello, the Faculty Student Association Director of Marketing and Communications, 25% of residents, or approximately 2,250 students, add more money to their meal plans each semester. Different available meal plans initially range from $1500 to over $2400 per semester, so there are numerous students who deal with a shortage of meal points by turning to cheap off-campus food or by simply going hungry.
Agnello said the meal plan provides a la carte dining style, which she sees as more flexible and varied than a buffet-style or board plan. “One of the largest benefits is that students can eat at their own pace,” Agnello said. “For example, if they would like a cup of coffee and a bagel for breakfast they can have that and not have to pay one set price to enter a dining location for something that would cost only a couple of dollars.” She also said that students can currently take food out of campus dining locations, which is not allowed under a board plan.
While many students appreciate the advantages of the current plan, some have become frustrated with the way the plan is implemented. Avanish Reddy, a sophomore, said, “I like all the different foods available on campus, and I like being able to take food back to my room, but the silver meal plan doesn’t give you enough points for the whole semester.”
The Stony Brook campus dining website, Campusdining.org, offers a meal plan budgeting chart that suggests how a student should ration out his or her points across a semester. On the silver meal plan, the default for a majority of students, the chart suggests a student would spend approximately $10 dollars a day, or $70 per week on food. However, this is almost impossible, however; the actual prices for food across campus translate into about $10 per meal.
“The food is just too expensive,” Reddy said. “I spend about 25 to 30 points a day, and on most days, that’s only for two meals.” David Steiber, also a sophomore, said, “It’s not hard to spend more than 20 points per day when sushi costs $10, plus a drink.” The cheapest and smallest sushi platters, which serve as little more than a snack, do start at $4.95, but a full sushi meal costs $9.95. Other meal-sized selections at most of the campus dining locations are similarly priced.
At the end of every semester, as students begin to run low on meal points, many cannot afford to add large amounts of money to their meal plans by credit card or through their student financial accounts. Students like Steiber and Reddy instead buy canned and microwavable food in bulk to substitute their shrinking meal plans. According to the two sophomores, foods like instant noodle cups and soup cans are not as filling, appetizing or nutritious as campus dining selections.
With the national economy in its current chaotic state, the prices for all kinds of consumer goods, including food, are rising. Stephanie Brumsey, a senior, has seen the prices for food rise steadily over the past four years, at dining locations all over campus.
Agnello said the Faculty Student Association must approve any increase in food prices in April of each year. The university’s dining contractor, Chartwells, first has to justify those changes, she said. The FSA normally does not approve increases larger than the Consumer Price Index for the region, she added.
That gives Brumsey no comfort. “All I know is that when I first came to Stony, it cost three bucks and some change for a small plastic container of fruit,” she said. “Now it costs five bucks and change and that’s just for some damn fruit.”
Students at SUNY Geneseo, which uses a plan similar to Stony Brook’s, have had complaints as well. Francis Melendez, a sophomore at Geneseo, said, “It’s kind of funny that Stony Brook students run out of meal points too, because that happens here almost every semester. A lot of us wonder if we are the only university that has to put up with this crap.”
At SUNY Albany, whose student population is similar to SBU’s 22,527, primarily uses a board plan. The university website, albany.edu, explains that students can select different plans with different “Weekly Blocks.” A block is simply a single buffet-style meal in which the students swipe their card once upon entering a campus dining hall. The plan allots each student 15 meals per week, or roughly two per day.
However, UAlbany also offers an additional optional plan called “Munch Money.” Students who enroll get $200 dollars of meal plan money towards different dining locations on campus. “I love the plan here,” said Zack Pumerantz, a UAlbany sophomore. “Most kids only eat twice a day anyway, and we get to eat as much as we want in one sitting. Then, if we get the munchies later, we can use our munch money. People here don’t use up their all their meals before the end of the semester, because we can only use 15 meals per week, and that makes you pace yourself.”
Nothing indicates that Stony Brook will change its current meal plan anytime soon. A new food court was recently opened on the campus’ Roth quad, which includes a Wendy’s fast food outlet. “One of the main benefits of having a declining balance meal plan is brands,” Agnello said. “With a declining balance meal plan, Campus Dining Services is able to offer brands like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Taco Bell and Wendy’s. We can also offer much more variety like made-to-order sushi, Wolfie’s sit-down restaurant, and Blue Agavé.”
There was noticeable buzz and positive conversation amid the student body concerning the new fast food joint on campus. However, according to Brumsey, Reddy, and Steiber, the buzz among the student body over new food selections does not equal the widespread concerns of dwindling meal points. With the end of the semester creeping closer and closer, these three students and many others will continue to find new ways to battle hunger at Stony Brook University.