Dining cooks up another disappointment for first-years

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Starting this semester, Carnegie Mellon Dining Services has made some rather substantial changes to how the meal plans, especially first-year plans, work. When rumors of the new plans first surfaced early last spring, reaction from the student body was not exactly positive. Talk of ?Schatz blocks,? which would force first-year students to use at least one of their meal blocks each week for dinner at Schatz Dining Room in the University Center, filtered from group to group as the rumors spread.
As it turns out, the rumors were true: Incoming first-years were greeted with a plan that was a huge step in the wrong direction by Dining Services. All first-year students on the meal plan are required to eat dinner at Schatz once a week, and meal blocks no longer have a cash value associated with them.

Unsurprisingly, this change in organization has caused some changes to the way university food vendors do business. Each vendor now offers about four ?meal choices? that can only be bought with meal blocks. These meals contain what Dining Services considers the ingredients of a balanced meal ? an entree, usually a side order, sometimes a piece of fruit, and a fountain drink.

On the surface, the new plans aren?t a horribly bad idea; yes, they do limit the use of meal blocks, so that the Sunday evening drink rushes that upperclassmen have grown accustomed to are gone; however, the official line of reasoning for this is sound. If you pay for a meal, you should be buying a meal. That makes sense. What doesn?t make sense, though, is that the options for how you can use that block are so few.

Half of the menu items at any given vendor aren?t even offered for consumption in a meal block. You can?t, for instance, walk into Ginger?s Deli and order a chicken wrap meal ? it simply doesn?t exist. And don?t even think about trying to get a bottle of water, or heaven forbid, a carton of milk with part of a meal block ? most vendors don?t offer any drink other than fountain sodas.

The block meal limitation is actually the most dire change for upperclassmen, of course. Even though some items will still be offered, their price when bought outside of blocks are two to three dollars more than the equivalent ?block values,? creating a de facto bias against people not on the meal plan ? essentially, Dining Services is saying ?pay for a meal plan now or end up paying even more later.?

What if you aren?t that hungry, but you still need to eat? You could use DineXtra, but that wastes blocks and limits purchasing power later in the week. Last year, students were able to buy, say, a side item at the Underground and a few yogurts or drinks to round out the block and save them for later. This is also no longer possible.

One of the goals of having the ?Schatz block? was to promote student interaction in a common-area or cafeteria setting. This is a noble goal, and while it is a major point of contention for many, it really has little impact on dining habits. One dinner in Schatz a week is not exactly a huge sacrifice, especially when everyone else on the plan has to do it too. Sure, the food isn?t great, but it?s not really any worse than anywhere else on campus ? many other colleges have even fewer choices, so arguing about spending one night a week at Schatz largely amounts to wasting energy.

However, limiting the ability of first-year students, and even upperclassmen, on the meal plan, to eat the way they choose to eat, is really going against the stated purposes of Dining Services. Dining Services wants to give students an opportunity to have balanced meals and improve social interaction with increased use of a cafeteria setting. However, the crippled meal plans make it exceedingly hard to actually get balanced meals regularly ? many students will find that there are only one or two offerings they actually like and will stick with that choice all year.

Many first-years will likely choose not to continue their support of Dining Services next year, after a poor experience at the start of their college careers. The new meal plan arrangement makes it harder for students to adjust to life on their own, because they are still being told what to eat and when to eat it: They don?t have to prioritize and budget food (or money) on their own like the previous setup required.

In all, the new meal plan seems to be a step backwards for Dining. Instead of forcing students into a fabricated ideal of what a full meal should be, Dining Services should be giving students opportunities to think for themselves and giving them options so they are compelled to care, if they want students to stay with them for one second longer than necessary.