Most colleges in the United States make students pay a large amount of money for resources like food, but many students said they wonder if spending money on groceries is really worth it compared to meal plans.
“I spend about $720 on groceries,” said Branden Schulte, a senior at UNC Asheville.
With around 18 weeks in a semester at most North Carolina colleges, students who buy groceries are more likely to budget their spending than those with meal plans.
Those living in the Woods, UNCA’s year round campus housing, said buying groceries makes more sense than having a meal plan like those living in the campus dorm buildings.
“The Woods apartments do have individual full size kitchens in each suite, thereby allowing everyday use of the kitchen for meal preparation,” said Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Nancy Yeager. “Most students in the Woods are upper class students who are looking for that next step toward independent living. However, every semester about 50 students living in The Woods purchase the residential meal plan and many others purchase block meal plans that many off-campus students also purchase.”
Stephanie Wiener, a senior at UNCA living in the Woods, said they usually spend around $750 on groceries, and generally only eats around two meals a day because of work during the week.
When buying food for residential living, a big factor for most students is buying certain foods for their nutrition and health needs.
“Mainly pasta, ground beef and chicken, sometimes veggies and fruit. I normally get my non-perishable groceries from Aldi and everything else from Harris Teeter,” Schulte said.
Shelf life for certain foods can be another big consideration for college students getting groceries.
“I usually buy food that lasts a while and is also gluten free, a lot of cereal and baking supplies and I usually instacart from Publix,” said Aspen Matosky, a sophomore.
Nutrition and health remains the main reason many students buy groceries instead of meal plans.
“Groceries are more worth it compared to the meal plan because I can buy healthier meals for cheaper,” Wiener said.
Students like Schulte and Wiener said groceries are more reliable than meal plans.
“Groceries, since it is more cost efficient and you learn valuable cooking skills,” Schulte said.
According to UNCA’s website under Residence Hall and Meal Plan Charges, the meal plan for the fall semester will increase to $2,302 per semester, with the price for the current spring semester at $2,235.
“Meal plan prices went up 3%, which is the normal CPI rate of inflation increase each year,” Yeager said. “Something students should be aware of is that while the meal plan prices for fall 2023 will have a 3% inflationary increase, the actual CPI for food away from home is 6.8%. The meal plan price for students, however, will only be increased by a 3% inflationary rate.”
While some students think the price of meal plans are worth it, students like Matosky think groceries are the better option price wise.
“I think the pricing is definitely worth it because I can’t eat a lot of the food on campus, so I definitely prefer groceries to meal plans,” Matosky said. “Plus with groceries if I’m craving cinnamon rolls I can make them instead of having to settle for something on campus.”
While some students like Matosky, Schulte and Wiener said groceries are more beneficial, others like Yeager suggest meal plans remain the way to go and help the campus grow.
“Mandatory on-campus meal plans have a variety of purposes,” Yeager said. “It is important for students to become engaged in the campus community, particularly in their first and second year, and on-campus meals play an important part in that process.”
All non-apartment dorm rooms usually come equipped with a mini fridge and microwave, and some of these buildings include a kitchen unit in the building if needed.
Yeager said these shouldn’t be used as everyday use kitchens for students, aseal plans offer substitutes to students who have trouble cooking or are too tired to make something themselves.
“The university’s food service provider contract also requires a minimum number of meal plans in order for it to be economically feasible to operate,” Yeager said.
Prices for meal plans are a big part in some students’ decision to live in the Woods or in a non-apartment style dorms.
Students who purchase meal plans use them at Brown dining hall and according to the Director of Dining Services Brooke Casteel, they serve around 800 to 1,200 people every day depending on the day of the week.
“We are working with the PILOT project team on a meal swipe donation program to benefit students with food insecurity on campus,” Casteel said.
PILOT is a project team that is trying to come up with a long term sustainable solution to food insecurity by helping out various programs and organizations on campus by helping them get funding as well as work with the feeding the homeless club by establishing a shared meal swipe program.
The dining hall menu has a number of options, including vegan and vegetarian options for nutritional needs.
“We consider the season, the products that are available locally and what students have been asking for as we start to develop our menus each semester,” Casteel said. “Then knowing the number of stations we have and the equipment at each, we then try to create full “meals” at each area and menu dishes that compliment each other.”
Brown has several different stations for food choices, these include savor, nourish, bakery, salad, pure and relax. These six stations showcase different types of food options for various health, nutritional needs and cravings.
“We sit down and look at each meal period to evaluate the options to ensure variety as well as dietary restrictions and preferences are considered,” Casteel said. “ After that, we compare meal periods to one another to again ensure variety and try to limit repetition. We utilize student surveys and feedback, as well as dishes that are trending locally, regionally and nationally as we write and modify menus throughout the year.”
The dining hall experiences common complaints and feedback from students who have meal plans and from those who do not.
“We have multiple forms of communication and take feedback very seriously,” Casteel said. “We evaluate procedures and if a change is warranted we implement and follow up appropriately.”
Nutrition needs and wants is a huge factor in complaints and feedback for the dining services.
“When feeding a large population of people, conflicting feedback can be common. For example, not enough vegan options and not enough meat options. Not enough vegetable options, and too many vegetables,” Casteel said. “We do our best to appeal to a wide range of preferences. That’s why we try to have as much variety as possible because we understand that dining and eating preferences are very personal and individualized.”
Complaints, feedback and other information about on campus food can be sent to the UNCA dining services account on instagram @uncaeats.
“We welcome suggestions and feedback through numerous channels and we are always open to new ideas and improvement suggestions,” Casteel said.