Forced food funding

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Daniel Lee/The Triton

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Living on campus is exorbitantly more expensive than off-campus and one of the most pressing reasons is mandatory Dining Dollars.

While Housing*Dining*Hospitality (HDH) is seemingly accessible with their dining and housing plans, they enforce mandatory dining plans for all on-campus residents. All students who are living on campus, regardless of income, kitchen access, and food intolerances, must buy at least $2,635 in Dining Dollars if living in an apartment, and $3,400 for residence hall dwellers.

HDH asserts that the reason behind the mandatory minimum is to “ensure that students have some kind of coverage related to meals.” This statement not only implies that UCSD students will not think or eat without HDH’s prompting, but also assumes that students are guaranteed to eat once they have HDH’s meal plan. However, if the goal is to feed students, it is not working.

In fact, a 2016 UC Undergraduate experience survey found that 20.6 percent of UCSD students report that they “somewhat often,” “often” or “very often” “skipped or cut the size of meals because there wasn’t enough money for food.” With that high of a percentage of students not eating, UCSD should be taking drastic measures to reduce food insecurity in accessible places.

In 2015, The Triton Food Pantry opened to combat the food insecurity problem UCSD students face despite HDH’s meal plans. Mark Cunningham, the Executive Director of HDH, states that “[their] support is directly leveraged to the Triton Food Pantry through sales donations and fundraising efforts.” This is a true signal that HDH’s mandatory minimum is not working and even HDH can recognize that.

The meal plan descriptions are even more concerning, covering “2 meals a day, 5 days a week.” This debunks the reason that HDH stated for their mandatory dining dollars. If they really hoped to provide adequate coverage for students to eat, the mandatory minimum would be enough to live on, and it is patently not.

Furthermore, if food insecurity was the root of the problem, wouldn’t measures be put in place for off-campus residents as well, to further ensure adequate sustenance for all students?

So here’s the question: why does HDH really have the mandatory Dining Dollar minimum? And who is it benefitting?

I’m an advocate for an opt-out dining plan for all on-campus residents. This plan would allow on-campus residents to opt-out of using the dining services at UCSD, instead spending their money at outside grocers and restaurants. While not convenient for all students, the opt-out plan would allow individual students to make the decision that best suits their life.

When I asked Cunningham about his take on opt-out dining plans, he responded that “We note that many residents have selected increased meal plans that fit with their needs. We estimate the overall savings compared to living off-campus to be about 20 percent in current market conditions, along with intangible value associated with convenience.”

Cunningham’s statement assumes that because students do, in fact, select a dining plan that they are content. This is not accurate. Many students are upset by the mandatory minimum but see no alternative and thusly, find a way to pay it. In fact, I have heard on-campus students say that since they are forced to pay a minimum, they might as well buy a full dining plan so that they can shop at one location. This feels manipulative.

HDH argues that their dining and housing plans work because people continue to want to live on campus. I argue that those are separate entities: the desire to be conveniently located is unrelated to HDH and, in fact, HDH is failing to accommodate student needs. As UCSD students who are required to be on campus for our education, HDH is taking advantage of us as a captive audience. It is unfair to assume students enjoy eating at HDH locations and don’t choose HDH because of its dominance on campus.

While their calculation of 20 percent saving may be correct as savings, there is no way to know what is being taken into consideration. At face value it seems substantial, but it maybe rooted in housing, transportation, or other costs we simply do not know. The second part of that statement is troubling: “intangible value associated with convenience.” And now HDH lives in a world similar to airport monopolies. Students are consumers within a closed community where HDH maintains a monopoly, exploiting the student market. Just like in an airport, we are paying for convenience in the raised on-campus prices.

When asked, Cunningham simply responded that “living on campus is and always has been the student (and parents) choice and never been mandatory” – true testament to the caring mindset of the Housing*Dining*Hospitality program at UCSD. This comes down to caring about student voices, and student food insecurity; it’s not just about the bottom line.

Jordan Packer is an opinion writer for The Triton. This post is part of a series on HDH. View previous posts in this series here

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