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Mandatory meal plans for off-campus students spark controversy

Marc Duebener
All students, regardless of living situation, will be required to purchase a meal plan for the 2024-2025 academic year.

All Grinnell College students, including those living in non-college housing, will be required to purchase a meal plan for the 2024-2025 academic year.

This is a change from the 2023-2024 academic year, when students living off campus were not required to purchase a meal plan. An email sent out to the student body on Dec. 1, 2023 priced the third meal plan option, mandatory for off-campus students, at $3,702 per year for 100 meal swipes and 5 guest swipes per semester. 

The email, signed by Germaine Gross, vice president for finance and treasurer at Grinnell College, outlined a new structure that condensed the 10 plans offered this year down to 3 options. The prices of the 3 tiers are $8,964 per year for unlimited meals a week, $8,314 per year for 14 meals a week and $3,702 per year for 100 meals a semester. 

Gross wrote in an email to The S&B that the requirement for off-campus students to purchase a meal plan stems from the need to combat food insecurity. According to Gross, the College has seen increased food pantry usage among all students as well as increased reports of food insecurity among off-campus students. 

The unlimited meal plan option will be covered by financial aid for high-need students, Gross wrote. However, some students are still concerned about their ability to afford this new plan. 

Chava Kernan-Bosomworth `26, who lives off campus with her wife, said that the two of them make under $1000 a month combined. 

“We don’t have that kind of extra money floating around,” Kernan-Bosomworth said. “We’re already living paycheck to paycheck off campus.” 

Kami Lichtas `26, who had previously withdrawn and then re-enrolled from Grinnell College for financial reasons, expressed doubts that financial aid would be adequate to cover the increased expense. 

“It just seems that every time I get a little bit of aid, when it comes to getting it for a meal plan or even scholarships, that takes away from the grant that they give me, so I’m still paying more and more regardless,” Lichtas said. She was referring to the fact that students receiving financial aid grants exceeding their billable cost of attendance get reimbursed for the difference by the College, and that this reimbursement amount would decrease if the cost of attendance increases due to mandatory meal plan expenses. 

We don’t have that kind of extra money floating around. We’re already living paycheck to paycheck off campus.

— Chava Kernan-Bosomworth `26

Other students have concerns about the limited options the Dining Hall provides, specifically for those with dietary restrictions. Mara Feirer `26, who has a gluten intolerance and does not eat beef or pork, said it is difficult for students with multiple separate dietary restrictions to eat at the Dining Hall. 

“There will be something in the gluten-free section that — the main entree has beef or pork in it, and then the main entree in the vegan section might have gluten in it,” Feirer said. “I don’t really want to be doing my meal swipe for dinner, which is equivalent to $18, then being able to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a salad.”

Gross wrote that students with a disability or chronic health condition that might require individualized accommodation should reach out to Jae Baldree, coordinator of student disability resources, to discuss their options. Depending on the needs of an individual, accommodations can include measures such as pre-plated meals or access to ingredients. 

In rare cases, “an exemption from or modification to existing meal plans may be considered as a reasonable accommodation if there are no other available accommodations that provide equitable access,” Gross wrote.

The Dec. 1, 2023 email sent out to students also stated the new structure is designed to enable the “role that campus dining plays in providing a social space, sense of community and belonging.” However, students living off campus have found different ways to create communities around food. 

Karima Rostom `26, a member of Grinnellians Who are Ready to Cook (GWARC) House, said that her college experience has been shaped by being able to make good food with her friends. 

“Self-governance is one of the biggest tenants of this college, and it is very limiting to our self-governance to not be able to govern what we consume,” Rostom said. She also stated that the College had an opportunity to expand upon this with the opening of Renfrow Hall this fall, which will feature new apartment-style living for students. 

“I was able to go to the Dining Hall last year, but it never felt like I was eating food with other people,” Rostom said. “I felt like I was figuring out what I could eat. And here it really really does feel different.” 

Rostom said she has several dietary restrictions that prevent her from eating many foods, but does not yet have a formal diagnosis due to the time and money it takes to obtain one. 

Self-governance is one of the biggest tenants of this college, and it is very limiting to our self-governance to not be able to govern what we consume.

— Karima Rostom `26

The decision to adjust meal plans was informed by a “comprehensive analysis of how dining works at peer institutions,” according to Gross. About half of Grinnell College’s peer institutions require all students living off campus to be on a meal plan, with some — including Kenyon College and Oberlin College — requiring all students to live on campus and purchase a meal plan. Others, including Macalester College and Carleton College, do not require students living off campus to purchase a plan. 

Gross wrote to The S&B that Grinnell College will continuously evaluate the policy. She stated that the dining services committee seeks student input to recommend improvements to dining services despite the fact that “the decision to move to three meal plans was not within the purview of the dining committee.” 

Some students have struggled to find the right administrator to contact about their worries and questions. Kernan-Bosomworth sent an email to student accounts about her personal concerns stemming from this change. Student accounts forwarded her to dining services, who forwarded her to financial aid, who she had not heard back from at the time of this interview. 

“Right now, we’re kind of doing the roulette of let’s get you to the proper person, except it’s never actually the proper person,” Kernan-Bosomworth said. She added that if she does not receive additional aid, she would not be able to afford to continue attending Grinnell. 

Rostom and other members of GWARC House reached out to Anne Harris, president of Grinnell College, who agreed to speak with them about their concerns regarding students with dietary restrictions. “We’re very grateful that we’re being heard,” Rostom said.

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About the Contributors
Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans, Opinions Editor
Sarah is a second year from Massachusetts studying political science and English. She adores Snoopy, Allison Ponthier’s music and fried pickles. The real reason she came to Grinnell was for the sunsets.
Marc Duebener
Marc Duebener, Staff Photographer
Marc Duebener is a first-year chemistry and economics major with a concentration in science, medicine and society. He says he is from Chicago, Illinois but really lives in the suburbs. On campus you can find Marc shooting sporting events and documentaries, studying in Noyce, or hitting the gym.
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    SamFeb 5, 2024 at 5:51 pm

    Every excuse for this administration’s feckless greed makes less sense than the last. Pre-plated meals and separate ingredients = logistical and personnel nightmares for Dining Services. A “comprehensive analysis of how dining works at peer institutions” when students are TELLING them how this impacts their lives and finances. And the community note? Ok. During my time as a student, I never felt MORE isolated than when I relied on the dining hall for every meal. When I lived off campus without a meal plan for my 3rd and 4th years, I found community and belonging by cooking with/for my friends and housemates, sharing homemade bread, hosting house dinners, friendsgivings, bake-offs.

    To echo the students in this article, I would not have been able to afford the additional thousands of dollars a mandatory plan would have incurred. This administration’s cowardly, market-tested, HR-nonspeak wont disguise their naked profit incentive, and their desire to milk students for any available wealth. For students to be further burdened by such expenses is needless and unconscionable ($20 dinner? $15 cereal and eggs? This isn’t how you address food insecurity…). And this is to say nothing of the public health nightmare that is cafeteria/buffet dining during a pandemic.

    Students in need of accommodation will be thrown like pinballs through Grinnell’s bureaucracy until they give up on the already absurdly simple accommodation of *checks notes* being allowed to make their own meals on their own time. Christ.