College students nationwide often question the ethics sur- rounding student meal plans. With a plan that does not carry over unused funds to the next semester, Gustavus is no exception. Students ask: Where does my money go? Why are groceries so expensive? Am I wasting my money? Director of Dining Services Steve Kjellgren wants to make sure that those questions don’t go unanswered.
Where does the money go?
Contrary to popular belief, unused meal plan fees are not used frivolously or “socked away” in the cafeteria coffers —in fact, a percentage of this money is used to run the dining hall, pay employees and pay for the many utilities that keep it running.
“There are certain costs just to keep the lights on. Those costs need to be paid whether or not students buy food— just to keep the cafeteria operating correctly,” Jim Dontje, who is a member of the advisory committee for the dining service called “The Kitchen Cabinet” said.
Roughly 40 percent of the money that the caf makes is set aside for the cost of groceries. Another 40 percent of the money is set aside to pay employees of the dining service, which includes a combination of 400 students workers, 60 full time staff and 20 high school students. The last 20 percent is used toward utilities that keep the caf running— such as electricity, gas and water.
The money that comes in from each student’s meal plan fees—whether they use it or not—is instrumental to the success of the dining service and the reason that it runs successfully every day.
“It is not a bank account that students have full access to. It is a fee that all students share in order for the col- lege to provide the meal program it does, as determined by the wants and needs of the students,” Kjellgren said.
While this may be the facts, there are certainly opinions and concerns expressed by students who wonder where their money goes when it seems to vanish.
“I feel like they never tell us what is happening to that money. I don’t think it is carried over and the rest feels like a waste for us—we wont see that money again,” Sophomore Kayla Warner said.
The miscommunication between the dining service and the students has been a heated topic, especially with the rising tuition prices and other economic hardships.
“If there’s a little money left over, maybe we can get a new oven. It’s not my job to make sure there’s a surplus— it’s my job to make sure that the costs and revenue is pre- dicted and that we can maintain a balance,” Kjellgren said.
“I see a lot of students as it reaches the end of the month, loading up on pop and chips and junk food that they prob- ably don’t even need—just so that the money doesn’t get lost and go to the school,” Warner said.
Although students may assume their money is going toward things that don’t effect them, they might be sur- prised to find out that there are many more factors at work in how their dollars are spent.
“We’re not in the business of getting profit, we’re in the business of providing the best service and results. We need to have the guaranteed revenue to pay for the cost of do- ing that, which comes from students living on campus,” Kjellgren said.
The talk of meal plan fees has always been an issue— especially when January Interim is included in the plan. “There is no separate way to bill for January— it is just tossed between the other two payments. I would like to pull January out of the mix, but there hasn’t been a way to develop a third billing cycle and that’s the challenge,” Kjellgren said. Students who traveled for January or have different circumstances than full time residential students during January Interim are encouraged to set up a meeting with Kjellgren to work out a plan more specific for their circumstances.
“I went to London for January [Interim] and I ended up not coming back before January ended, so I lost almost $200,” Sophomore Becky Jensen said. “I shouldn’t have to pay for things I’m not utilizing.”
“The intent is not to harvest the money, it’s to match it. It requires responsibility out of the students, but the net result is far more offerings, far more choice and a much more pleasant dining experience,” Dontje said.
Not the only one struggling in a time of economic instability, Kjellgren deals with the consequences of not being able to predict shortages in finances. The estimates made for the cost of food were based on a 2 or 3 percent increase in commodities (groceries), while the actual increase was 7 to 11 percent.
In the past, population eating habits have been easier to predict. Generally, very little variation happened from year to year. With the rising number of food allergies and intolerances, the ability to predict eating habits is becom- ing a wild card, leading to the inability to closely predict food costs and revenues. With many factors to keep in mind, such as global changes in the cost of beef or even local changes such as the amount of incoming first-years, there is no question that more factors are involved in this process making the outcome much more difficult to calculate efficiently.
Making thoughtful choices
Although students may not notice it or recognize it, the “good food for all” image—now hanging on the east wall of the dining hall—was made to show important factors in the food choosing and distribution process. These words are meant to represent thoughtful choices—not just for the benefit of the students or costs, but also in the best interest of ethics and health.
“That image shows why we think it’s important to make the decisions we do,” Kjellgren said. “Not once have I done something primarily because it’s the cheapest op- tion—it has to be the right option on more than one level. Sometimes the right option is the cheapest option, but at least we stopped to think about it.”
Things like how the food is being treated or raised, whether it is organic or nonorganic, and what conditions the food productions are under are all important factors to how the dining service makes their decisions to purchase food from certain places, both near and far.
“Local isn’t always the most efficient. Free range turkey from Cannon Falls and grass fed beef are only a few of the examples of the thoughtful choices we make—it’s more important to spend a little bit more and support the way that things are being done than to just go for the easiest or cheapest option,” Kjellgren said.
The leading force behind the “good food for all” image and the ethical side of food is a group called The Kitchen Cabinet. Members are elected by a dining service director and include representation from student organizations, academic departments and administrative divisions. Their primary objective is to provide insight from different viewpoints in order to help the dining service make the best decisions on matters that involve “ethical, social po- litical, dietary or pedagogical uses of the Dining Service,” as well as make recommendations that are parallel with the College’s mission. Professor Lisa Heldke, a member of the Kitchen Cabinet and a published philosopher on the subject of food has much to say about the ethics of food.
“As a group, we want to develop a guide to making these types of decisions. We ask the question, how do we as a community, or the dining service as an organization ,go about making these decisions economically, socially, ethically and successfully,” Heldke said.
Knowing the logistics of where students’ money goes, how it is being spent and why meal dollars do not carry over may look simplified in print, but the bigger question appears to be how we assess the food’s value and consid- erations put into how our dining service is run.