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Meal Plan Details

Here is a WSO discussion about the economics of meal plan choice. Since these threads sometimes disappear, I have copied David Moore’s ’10 excellent summary post below the break. (Future historians will thank me.) What meal plan choices did you face during your time at Williams?

Your numbers are a bit off. There is a savings, but the deal isn’t quite as good as you think it is (primarily because meals in dining halls don’t cost a uniform $8.5). Since students living in co-ops do have the option of going off the meal plan, these calculations have been near and dear to my heart over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d post the numbers for the benefit of anyone else trying to figure out their meal situation.

Basically, students spend about 32 weeks on campus in an academic year (14 per semester and 4 over winter study). Over that period, if you eat every single meal you’re entitled to in dining halls (meaning you never go away for a weekend, never eat at a restaurant, never skip a meal, etc.), then it breaks down like this:
– 21-meal plan: $5110/(21*32) = $7.6/meal
– 14-meal plan: $4770/(14*32) = $10.6/meal
– 10-meal plan: $3900/(10*32) = $12.2/meal
– 5-meal plan: $2060/(5*32) = $12.9/meal
– 50-meal block: $625/(50) = $12.5/meal

If I recall correctly, the cash prices of dining hall meals – if you pay at the door, without a meal plan – are $6.50 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $13 for dinner. So the meal plans are actually priced pretty fairly, from one perspective. Dining Services assumes that people on the 21 aren’t always going to eat all 21 meals, and that some of the meals they eat will be breakfasts, which are relatively cheap, so they can afford to charge less per meal. As you move to the lower meal plans, the price per meal increases, because it’s assumed that you’re much more likely to actually use all of the meals, and also much more likely to tend towards dinners and lunches rather than breakfasts (I think those reasons account for more of the differences between plans than simple bulk discounting, although that may be in play as well). The 50-meal block is a bit of an outlier in that it’s actually cheaper than the other low meal-plans. It turns out that if you have the option of going off of a meal plan but you still want to eat in dining halls, the best strategy is buy 50-meal blocks, use them exclusively for dinners, and pay for lunches and breakfasts in cash. This saves you a bit of money relative to the 5- and 10- meal plans (exactly how much depends on which meals you tend to eat most in dining halls), but the 21 is still a better deal if you actually plan on making full use of it.

As for the broader question of why on-campus students are required to be on a meal plan, I think Dining Services has reasons of their own which probably make sense from a higher perspective but aren’t much comfort to individual students looking to save money. Williams likes to be able to guarantee to parents that students are eating well, and they don’t expect kids to be able to cook consistently in dorm kitchens. As a residential school, dining halls provide a source of campus community and interaction which only works if people actually eat in them. Also, Dining Services needs to know that it will be serving some minimum number of students in order for it to remain financially viable to keep four dining halls open and running. If they allowed students to pay by the meal, it would introduce a lot of uncertainty and instability into their financial planning and possibly (if it led to more people eating off campus) result in one or more dining halls having to close, which I think we can agree is not a desirable outcome.

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#1 Comment By Dick Swart On September 19, 2009 @ 11:45 am

At least for me, a part of the problem of feeling disconnected to many of the campus activity-related writings in these pages, is that the topics were non-existent on campus in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep.

Meal plans, sexual harassment, the drinking age, ‘neighborhoods’, racial incidents…

I do not mean to de-mean the importance and import of these topics to current students or, indeed, to any of us as aware human beings.

I am simply remarking that campus life was more simple but no less satisfying in olden times, and, apparently, with no degradation of the quality of the education or the desire to move forward into life after the campus.

And so, the question of ‘meal plans’ is moot for those of us in the fifties who ate three squares a day in our houses at regular times and sitting down.

#2 Comment By PTC On September 20, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

Dick- You guys were in coat and tie right? When did that go away?

History of the dress code would be interesting. Is there a dress code now?

#3 Comment By Sam On September 20, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

“in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep.”

Dick, do you have the whole thing memorized? Do you read it at Christmas time?

#4 Comment By Dick Swart On September 20, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

PTC – yes, coat and tie for dinner. Guest meals – Wed evening and Sunday noon – coat and ties with flannels rather than khakis, maybe a suit. Sunday evening, at least at our house, was cook’s night off. Soup and sandwiches made ahead by cook for serving. No coat and ties needed,

This was probably the night for a run to The Mohawk Theater and a bite at Dileggo’s Diner (a real rr car), if you were ok for cutting chapel/had attended and signed in earlier or were not on no-cuts.

Sam – I’ve read it for so many years, chunks just pop into my head. Thomas is what the music of language is all about!

#5 Comment By PTC On September 20, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

Someone should do a post on the dress code at Williams and how it relates in a historical context… when the school went co ed, the various forms of rebellion in the 60s. The Vietnam war, civil rights movement, womens liberation. It would make for an interesting post… I have a feeling the dress code was a reflection of those things in society.