Paying for Convenience: A Breakdown of CC’s Meal Plan

DSC_0104According to the Colorado College Annual Bulletin from 1891, the all-college meal plan rate was at $4 a week, or approximately 57 cents a day. As of the 2015-2016 academic year, the lowest required meal plan option calls for 18 “Tiger Bucks”, or $18, of spending at on-campus cafes daily, totaling an academic year of dining to $3,844, or $1,922 per semester. This amount does not include the annual administrative cost of $824 per student. Stretching $18 over three meals, where the cheapest pre-packaged options cost between $4 and $5, requires strategy and strict rationing.

On Feb. 22, Odyssey contributor Samuel Shapiro Zagula claimed difficulty maintaining a healthy weight with the money allocated due to high dining prices in his article, “Are Colorado College’s Meal Plan And Forced On-Campus Housing Financial Slavery”? He offered vehement, critical opposition to the meal plan and housing programs at the college, calling the “closed system” in place “a monopoly” in which “the College administration is able to inflate prices any amount that they wish.”

Zagula found the most damning evidence for the college running a monopoly in the invented currency of the meal plan, “Tiger Bucks.” The Colorado College website states that, “One Tiger Buck is equal to $1.00”, but Zagula insists that this does not explain the college’s ability to dictate the prices of meals and goods in their dining halls at will.

“Because [the administration] could hypothetically inflate their prices as much as they wanted to…the students wouldn’t be able to choose anything else to spend their money on because they only have this certain kind of money that’s not valid at any other places,” said Zagula, “That’s kind of what I mean by monopoly.”

Bon Appétit, a California-based food service operation which, as its website states, serves “corporations, universities, museums, and specialty venues,” is the food service provider for CC. When General Manager of Bon Appétit at CC, Randy Kruse, was approached about the accusation of pricing power creating a monopoly at the college, he declined to comment, but offered insight into the breakdown of pricing.

“For someone to compare a grocery store cost of goods versus what we have here is—it’s different,” said Kruse. “If you’re comparing restaurants to what we do versus a grocery store, then you’re more accurate when you’re comparing restaurant to restaurant and not grocery store to restaurant.”

meal planThe majority of Bon Appétit’s services operate under restaurant models, which rely on cooks to prepare food on-site with fresh ingredients. Kruse cites this as a factor in pricing the made-to-order or hot food prepared at Rastall Café, Benjamin’s, and the Preserve, though he declined to explain numerically how this factors into pricing.

“We support local,” said Kruse, “and that comes at a different cost and quality. It’s the comparison between a Burger King burger and a Benji’s burger, for example.”

Local agricultural initiatives that Bon Appétit uses as suppliers include the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, Daily Harvest Aquaponics, and the CC Student Garden when it is in season. Kruse explained that though the decision to source locally comes with a higher cost for produce, it models CC’s mission of sustainability that is central to campus operations.

Kruse proudly praised the college for setting living wages for its employees, though that comes with a factor in pricing and dining costs as well.

“We pay our employees a living wage, and it’s important to note,” said Kruse, “that we don’t get paid unless you spend your money. We have to work hard to earn your business. That’s why we work hard.”

The employee treatment ethics of the company’s operations at CC align with the Bon Appétit Management Company’s online promise to “create great places to work, with healthy and productive employees.” Living wages and sustainable mission aside, there is a staggering amount of money that Bon Appétit collects from the administrative fund.

Regardless of what meal plan a student is on, each plan comes with an administrative fee of $824, with the rest becoming “Tiger Bucks.” With an enrollment of 2,050 students, according to US News Education. Estimating that half of students have a meal plan of some kind, Bon Appétit totals $844, 600 from the administrative fee in an academic year.

Kruse purports that this money goes directly to the operation and improvement of all of the college’s dining facilities. To Zagula, this explanation offers insufficient insight as to how the college can feasibly require students to participate in a meal plan “economy” which charges what “seem[s] to be about twice as much as I’d normally pay for [basic goods] at the store” at Local Goods.

CC requires students who are living on campus to purchase a meal plan. The only exceptions include residents of the Synergy House, the Senior Cottages, or members of the college who are approved to live off campus, a privilege usually only accessible to seniors. To Zagula, this is the system that constitutes the term “financial slavery.”

“I’ve always kind of felt like…the hardness that like…it’s not like an option to get off the meal plan,” said Zagula, “and you have to stay on that and they basically get to control what you buy and how much it costs.”

Kruse relayed that the requirement for students to live on campus and purchase a meal plan through their junior year is not entirely up to Bon Appétit.

“The college requires that, and is part of our agreement with the college,” he said, “but the college is the one who drives that requirement. And obviously [it’s] in partnership with Bon Appétit but it’s a collaborative effort.”

In terms of the pricing of retail products at Local Goods, an employee of the college who chose to remain anonymous explained the three factors that go into pricing the goods available on campus: food, labor, and convenience.

“There’s a specific percentage that goes into each category,” they said, “and with that comes a certain pricing point that the college follows.” The percentages are not dictated by the CC chapter of Bon Appétit, but by higher management.

Kruse elaborated on the major impact of convenience as a company with little purchasing power on the national market, “There is a significance in that the buying power that we have for a small store like Local Goods compared to what a grocery chain has in buying power is significant.”

According to Boundless.com, purchasing power is determined by the real income a business has. Higher real income means more purchasing power, and thus a lower product price in the retail outlet. As Bon Appétit is a smaller retail outlet products have to be sold at a higher price to keep the company competitive.

Furthermore, as Local Goods keeps students from having to travel to purchase their groceries and goods, a percentage of the cost has to factor in the convenience for a product. Kruse declined to offer the exact percentage, but offered an example model that convenience may make up 40 cents to every $1. The anonymous employee expressed curiosity and skepticism concerning the real percentage of convenience and if it is fair to students.

“I’ve asked the same question about pricing and was given the same reason of convenience.” The employee went on to explain how the “monopoly” piece of the business operates at the college, “The school isn’t really in charge of the pricing, but it is a monopoly in the way the school gets students to pay for [meal plans].”

Kruse explained that the system, though not completely under Bon Appétit’s control, is a beneficial one for CC, “The benefit is not so much an economic piece as much as the fostering of the community.” He cites the benefit of having communal areas for all of the college’s members to congregate and eat as central to what makes the college special.

The anonymous employee, however, expressed the reality of Bon Appétit operating as primarily a business, “Bon Appétit is first and foremost a business,” they said. “It can’t and doesn’t always work in the best interest of students.”

Zagula articulates frustration with the limitations of only being able to purchase food from Bon Appétit. In his article he says, “I’m someone who greatly prefers to make his own food in a particular way, rather than constantly ordering food from a small variety of places.”

He brings to light the point that students with dietary restrictions forced to remain on the meal plan are at a significant health disadvantage.

“We’ve had several students this year that, they come in and we know who they are…and we…prepare specific entrees for them to meet their dietary needs,” said Kruse. “Just because they don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not something that we can get for them.”

The CC Meal Plan C for the 2016-2017 academic school year, according to an e-mail from President Tiefenthaler in an update from the February Board of Trustees meeting, is set for an annual rate of $4,766, $2,383 per semester including the administrative fee.

Students with questions, comments, dietary restrictions, or concerns are urged to contact the Bon Appétit management office, located in the bottom level of Ticknor. Randy Kruse can be reached via e-mail at rkruse@coloradocollege.edu.

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