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The monopoly of meal plans

Mandatory meal plans have plagued the halls of UMBC dorms for as long as students can remember. Some are happy with the service, as it provides a hassle-free way to dine on campus. Others, however, are discontent with the compulsory state of meal plans for residential students.

Meal plans are wildly expensive. When combined with the cost of tuition and housing, meal plans elevate the cost of attending UMBC to over $10,000 per semester for in-state students. Even the cheapest meal plan is priced at over $1,900.

When the price of this meal plan, the Terrific 12, is broken down into dollars per meal swipe, the result is about $10.64 per meal. Each meal translates into $5.95 per swipe outside of True Grits, $4.69 under what they charge per meal in the total cost of the plan. This means each student is overcharged about $844 per semester, not including missed meal swipes, for the cheapest dormitory meal plan.

This con deal is the result of a monopoly that Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services holds over UMBC students. Due to the non-negotiable Residential Life Housing License, which states that students in dormitories must have a meal plan, Chartwells is able to have full control over the prices of meal plans. This setup can easily lead to rapid inflation of meal plans that students are forced to buy.

The mandatory state and high price of meal plans often leaves students focusing on their swipes, instead of how much they are spending. Jennifer Duvall, a junior environmental science major, has felt the guilt of not using all her meal swipes. “I wasn’t using all the meals that the Ultimate meal [plan] had and I felt like I’d save a lot of money if I switched,” she said. “[A] lot of people probably would do the same or they wouldn’t even need a meal plan.”

The best way to progress with meal plans is to make them optional for students in the dorms. Students would be asked to sign up for a meal plan by default, but could then fill out an ‘opt-out’ form to avoid buying one. This optional meal plan would allow students to make an educated decision about whether or not they want a meal plan and put them fiscally in charge of managing their dietary needs.

“I definitely feel like a lot of students don’t necessarily need the meal plans,” noted Raquel Jaramillo, a junior biochemistry major. “But they’re required to get them so they’re just spending money unnecessarily.”

As a resident of the on campus apartments, Raquel continues to feel the monopoly of Chartwells. “Last semester I had five meals per week and it was $900 … this semester I have a 50 meal block, which averages to like three meals per week,” she said, “It’s like $500 less for two less meals a week [which] I get from the grocery store, that I’m spending $5 on.”

“For me, it’s just a giant rip off,” she stated.

As the end of the Chartwells contract approaches, UMBC students should continue to speak out against the mandatory, overpriced meal plans. It is time to fight for the right to have options, and not just ones that lead back to the same corporate business.