Sophomore Erica Roberson thought she had finally found the right meal plan.
But at the end of the fall semester, she was surprised to find more than a quarter of her 160 meals had gone unused.
Roberson is a part of a larger trend. At UNC-CH, 25 percent of all meals bought through campus dining plans are wasted each semester, a model that finds mixed comparisons at other UNC-system schools.
“There should be some kind of block plan, maybe even lower than 120 meals, because the lowest they have is the commuter plan with 50 meals, which is too little,” Roberson said.
Money from wasted meals subsidizes Carolina Dining Services’ prices and pay for overhead expenses and staff, said Scott Myers, director of dining and vending.
Carolina Dining Services, which offers meal plan options to on-campus and commuter students, sells about 6,000 meal plans each fall.
The large percentage of unused meals can be attributed to students buying meal plans that don’t match their lifestyles, Myers said.
Money from unused meals also help pay for debt owed by Carolina Dining Services, which currently has $30 million in outstanding debt charges due to facility upkeep and renovations at Lenoir and Rams Head dining halls.
If students were to eat every meal they purchased, meal plan prices would be higher, Myers said.
“For a plan that includes 14 meals per week, we charge $6.67 (per meal),” he said. “You would never see an all-you-can-eat meal for $6.67 anywhere else.”
But some students think there should be a more economical option.
“Sometimes when I’m not really hungry, I’ll go to the dining hall and (wonder) if it is really worth the $10 or $7, depending on the time, when I just feel like eating a salad,” freshman Terri Frasca said.
Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University boast much lower percentages of unused meals: 0.75 percent and 0.007 percent, respectively.
Appalachian State, with dining halls that operate on an a-la-carte system, has the most economical meal plans of UNC-system schools, said its director of food services Art Kessler.
“We promote that they go to the on-campus convenience store at the end of the year, so at least they can take something home with them (by using) whatever is remaining on their meal plan,” he said.
“We’re not resting on our laurels here,” Kessler said. “We monitor it every day to make sure students are getting what they’re paying for.”
During the past few decades, UNC-CH has experimented with alternative meal plan systems. In the early 1990s, Carolina Dining Services established a meal equivalency program that allowed students to use swipes to purchase food at other on-campus vendors.
But this system, which N.C. State University currently uses, was quickly scrapped.
“There were so many complaints about the value students got from their equivalency,” Myers said.
Despite shortcomings in the current system, Myers said he still thinks it is economical.
“We want the meal plan program to be desirable to people because we actually have to sell it,” he said. “We’re not making anybody buy it.”
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