Mandatory dining plans are a rite of passage for college freshmen across the nation who have to endure powdered eggs, soggy pasta and frozen tortillas.
But Cal Poly’s freshman plans are among the most expensive of any public school in California — and prices for packaged food and items are disproportionately high compared to off-campus grocery stores.
Many upperclassmen skip meals rather than pay for food on campus.
At Campus Market, single bananas and apples cost 99 cents, and a single Claritin tablet costs $3.39.
Cal Poly’s cheapest dining plan is more expensive than most CSU and UC schools’ highest-priced plans.
In October 2023, Mustang News recorded prices of various items at Campus Market. Of 44 items that were also sold at Vons, 42 were more expensive— more than half of the items were marked up by more than 50%.
Mustang News spoke with 15 students who expressed frustration over the price and quality of campus food.
“They’re forcing them to get the most expensive food possibly in SLO,” former ASI Board of Directors member and political science alumnus Alexandria Raynes said.
Cal Poly Corporation (CPC) Spokesperson Aaron Lambert said Campus Dining looks for “economically feasible solution[s],” working with Chartwells, the multinational food service group that runs Campus Dining’s daily operations, to determine their food prices.
“Chartwells has an internal team with nationwide buying power that works with distributors to get the best deal possible,” Lambert wrote.
In the past, Chartwells has promised other universities “the maximum financial return” and other multi-million-dollar monetary incentives, according to the Hechinger Report. The company was once forced to pay $19 million after overcharging Washington D.C. public schools for school lunches.
Lambert suggested Cal Poly dining plan prices cost more than other California schools because of its Dining Dollar system, where students use a declining balance to pay for single food items rather than swiping into a buffet-style dining hall.
Cal Poly’s meal plans still cost thousands of dollars more than other Dining Dollar schools.
Unlike many other schools, Cal Poly charges an annual $1,026 “operational fee” on top of their meal plans which funds maintenance and construction for buildings like Vista Grande and the 1901 Marketplace.
“The Corporation is putting their own revenue streams above the needs of students,” Raynes said.
A yearly adjustment
In the last five years, Cal Poly freshman dining plans have increased between 24% and 33%.
While the cheapest plan increased at roughly the pace of inflation, the more expensive plans outpaced inflation by $500 to $800.
The three freshman meal plans — First Year Limited, Plus and Max — cost $6185, $6743 and $7400 respectively.
The cheapest 2023-24 plan costs more than the most expensive 2021-22 plan.
When determining meal plan prices, Campus Dining puts a price tag on a “full meal,” which costs $15, as of 2023-24. Meanwhile, students on the Plus (which provides $24 a day) or Limited ($18 a day) plans have enough money for less than two meals a day.
On average, Americans spent $12.80 on food per day in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sociology freshman Api Kaila, who has the Limited plan, eats one meal a day with her dining dollars and cooks the rest of her meals in the dorms using food she bought off-campus.
“It’s not enough food,” Kaila said.
Why are prices so high?
Lambert said the prices Campus Dining pays for the food they sell have increased 30% over the past three years.
Agribusiness professor and food pricing expert Ricky Volpe said rising prices reflect national trends of food inflation in the past year due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict— which affects the prices of any foods produced with wheat, soybeans or sunflower oils.
“It just sounds like they’re lagging a year to 18 months behind what is actually happening with food price inflation in the United States,” Volpe said. “Even if the conflict ended today, we’d still be feeling those impacts for months.”
Food prices increased nearly 10% nationally in 2022, according to the US Inflation Calculator.
“The prices they’re paying for goods, transportation, labor wages, all those things are up,” Volpe said. “And so now we’re seeing meal plan prices push ahead and try to make up for that.”
Lambert said food prices will continue to skyrocket in the coming years.
“The rise is driven by increases in labor and food costs, which is consistent with institutions across the nation,” Lambert wrote in an email to Mustang News in May. “Long-term forecasts found that these costs would continue to rise exponentially.”
Volpe questioned the “long-term forecasts,” saying inflation does not work as CPC suggests.
“The idea that costs will increase exponentially and that we’ll have double-digit inflation indefinitely moving forward, that’s not happening anywhere,” Volpe said. “That’s not even happening in developing nations. That sounds like an exaggeration.”
Cal Poly students affected by high food insecurity
After their first year, students are no longer required to buy a dining plan.
When they have to pay for tuition, rent, textbooks and other necessities, food can slip down on a given student’s priority list — especially if the food that’s available on campus isn’t affordable.
“Food insecurity risk tends to skyrocket after you get off your meal plan,” nutrition professor Aydin Nazmi said. “It’s not a problem that is restricted to ‘poor people.’”
A survey published by Cal Poly’s Basic Needs Report in 2022 found that students experience food insecurity at a rate of 39% — three times higher than the national average.
Nazmi leads Cal Poly’s CalFresh Outreach initiative. The initiative helps students apply for CalFresh — California’s version of nationwide EBT benefits — which provides low-income Californians and college students up to $291 a month to buy groceries at virtually any store.
Since you can’t use EBT benefits on prepared meals, the only places on campus where students with EBT can buy food are at Campus Market, Market Grand Ave and Market Poly Canyon — where food frequently costs double the same items at Ralph’s or Vons.
But rather than making up for it by buying food off-campus, many students simply don’t eat.
In a March Campus Dining survey, 49% of respondents — nearly 1800 students — said they skip meals if they don’t buy food on campus.
One of these students is economics junior Sam Huang. Huang doesn’t have a car and has to rely on friends to drive him from his house on Foothill Boulevard to grocery stores several miles away.
He also works early mornings at the Business Building and has early classes on the days he doesn’t work.
“I don’t really have time or the energy to make breakfast at home,” Huang said. “Usually I don’t eat lunch or breakfast unless there’s food on campus through a club.”
Even with his CalFresh EBT benefits, Huang avoids Campus Market because of the disproportionately high prices. He said he wishes there was more affordable food near campus.
“It’s not Cal Poly’s fault that they can’t sell prepared food with EBT, but a grocery store that charges normal prices would be very helpful,” Huang said. “Even if it’s not at Cal Poly.”
Huang said he’s concerned about the rising costs of meal plans and campus food.
“Their obligation is to make sure the price of on-campus food is at a level that is accessible to students without having it take up too much of your income,” Huang said about Campus Dining.
According to Nazmi, students skipping costly meals is devastating to Cal Poly’s academic environment.
“If [students] are not getting enough food to sleep properly or stay awake, our educational mission is completely moot,” Nazmi said. “If you can’t eat, you can’t study.”
According to Lambert, CPC combats food insecurity by allowing the Food Pantry to purchase food through Campus Dining’s vendors, discounting meal plans for 100 student-athletes each quarter and providing frozen meals to the food pantry.
They also offer students the option to donate any unused Dining Dollars to low-income students through Mustang Meal Share.
Unless students purchase another meal plan or donate through Mustang Meal Share, their Dining Dollars are automatically forfeited into CPC’s emergency reserve fund.
At the end of the 2021-22 school year, CPC re-absorbed more than $300,000 unused Dining Dollars.
“It just feels a little unfair,” Raynes said.
Raynes authored a Board of Directors resolution in the spring calling on CPC to let students roll over Dining Dollars without purchasing another plan or to direct all surplus dollars to the Food Pantry or to Mustang Meal Share.
“If it’s that easy, you basically have to fill out a form saying you want to donate this amount of money,” Raynes said. “It should be that easy for them to just do that automatically at the end of the year.”
CPC spokesperson Andrea Burns told ASI that Campus Dining has $44 million of outstanding debt, claiming they would be forced to increase their prices if they donated the unused Dining Dollars.
“Campus Dining could not assume the cost of [the] resolution without increasing its prices,” Burns wrote to Raynes.
Burns also claimed that sending unused Dining Dollars to the Food Pantry would cripple Campus Dining.
“Funding university programs such as the food pantry using student meal plan dollars results in a negative spiral of increasing campus food costs and decreasing affordability for students,” Burns said. “CPC has no other funding sources.”
Students express frustration
Students in the Campus Dining survey were “dissatisfied” on average with several aspects of Campus Dining including the “value for price paid,” “value of meal plans” and “availability of healthy options.”
For business sophomore Claire Hughes, her first-year medium meal plan, was “definitely not” worth the money.
“It was way too expensive for what you’re paying for,” Hughes said. “They kind of have a monopoly on everything here and they just charge you so much.”
Hughes enjoys shopping off-campus now that she isn’t required to buy a meal plan, saying the on-campus dining didn’t provide enough produce or healthy options.
“I have more freedom to find what I want,” Hughes said. “It comes out of my bank account but it’s a better bargain than what I would get here. I’m okay with that because it’s better quality food than at Cal Poly.”
Several first-year students eating at Vista Grande complained about poor food quality, high prices and inconsistent portion sizes.
“They’re pretty small meals for what you’re paying,” wine and viticulture freshman Gabriel Hirner said. “I’m usually still hungry after I eat.”
Industrial technology and packaging major Lily Bryan cycles through just two entrees at the dining complex: a burrito and a falafel wrap.
“Everything else just feels unhealthy going down,” Bryan said. “I’m not sick of it yet, but I feel like I can’t keep this up for the entire year.”
Bryan also took issue with the prices of produce and healthier options at Campus Market and Market Grand Avenue, complaining specifically about the cup of roughly 20 grapes that costs $5.75.
“I don’t get fruits or vegetables here,” Bryan said. “My nutrition has gone down since coming to college, and it’s frustrating. There aren’t many options to live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. And a lot of the time I feel like I’m eating because it’s lunchtime, I have to get something down, but I’m not enjoying it.”
Despite the current food prices, Bryan said she would pay more money “to feel more fueled than I do now.”
Interdisciplinary studies freshman Bayla Jefferson echoed Bryan’s thoughts.
“I’m not finding any of the food I really want to eat here,” Jefferson said. “Sometimes I re-order because the order I get is so gross and I don’t want to eat it.”
During week one of fall quarter, landscape architecture freshman Bianca Brown said she was served raw chicken at Vista Grande.
“I eat a lot of things, I’m not super picky,” Brown said. “But a lot of it is disgusting and expensive. And I feel bad wasting all this food.”
She also called for Campus Dining to provide more produce and fresh food.
“I feel like I haven’t had vegetables in so long,” Brown said. “Is that just the college experience? It shouldn’t be.”
Liv Watts, a manager for Cal Poly’s CalFresh outreach program and graduate student, said she thinks on-campus food prices are unreasonably high.
“I understand that the university has to mark up prices,” Watts said. “But the cost of a single banana is a dollar at Campus Market. If you bought it anywhere else, a banana costs usually 19 cents, 20 cents.”
Watts said meal plans exist to offer support for students during the transition to codependent living during college — so that they don’t have to go buy groceries off-campus and prepare their own food.
“They should be based on the cost of labor, the cost of food,” Watts said.
Monika Garofano, the mother of architecture engineering sophomore Anna, said she ended up paying another thousand dollars by the end of the 2022-23 school year to supplement her daughter’s meal plan after she ran out of Dining Dollars.
Garofano said Campus Dining needs to find a better balance between inexpensive, healthy and enough food.
“I don’t think I had a realistic understanding of how much the food would cost,” Garofano said. “I had expected the medium-price plan would more than cover my daughter’s needs. If she was willing to eat the least healthy, cheapest things, maybe, but there’s no way to live on that. It’s just not realistic. The way it’s described is not actually realistic.”
Chartwells’ history of overcharging and poor food quality
Lambert suggested that Chartwells, which took over Campus Dining’s daily operations in July, will help keep food costs down on campus.
“Expanding the partnership with Chartwells will help to slow the likely future [price] increases,” Lambert wrote, explaining that the multinational company can purchase food at lower prices than Campus Dining can.
Chartwells operates on more than 300 college campuses and has partnered with Cal Poly for six years.
In 2017, Chartwells promised Southeast Missouri State the “maximum financial return to the university” — implying that their goal is to make colleges money on their dining programs, not to help students save money on food.
“Obviously they can’t operate at a loss, but I think students should be prioritized first,” Garofano said about Campus Dining. “It shouldn’t be a profit-driven decision.”
Chartwells had several newsworthy instances of subpar service in recent years: In 2015, they paid $19 million to the city of Washington, D.C. after they consistently overcharged the district for school lunches. In 2014, Chartwells served hot dogs with mold and human hair to a Connecticut school. In 2021, The Independent reported on “inadequate” school lunches the food service group provided.
Despite student frustrations, Campus Dining is unlikely to decrease food prices now that Chartwells has full control over daily operations.
If Campus Dining does continue raising food and meal plan prices, Volpe recommended they do it at a rate based on the Food Consumer Pricing Index, which tracks how much prices rise nationwide.
“That would go a long way towards adjustments that are matching the market,” Volpe said.
Any students who aren’t on a first-year meal plan are eligible to apply for CalFresh EBT — Cal Poly’s CalFresh Outreach program has helped nearly 2,000 students apply for EBT so far.
As she looked at her bills at the start of the 2022-23 school year, liberal studies alum Kaylee Benting realized she wouldn’t have enough money to buy food along with her tuition, rent, gas and more.
But thanks to CalFresh, Benting — a first-generation college student who paid her own bills with her income, various scholarships and research grants — got enough money to cover her groceries.
“Sign up, because it’s free money,” Benting said. “Cal Poly needs a longer-term [pricing] solution that they need to work on, but CalFresh is a really great immediate opportunity.”
The SLO Food Bank also holds a monthly grocery distribution — open to all students — on the fourth Tuesday of every month from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on the Health Center lawn.
All students can also access the Food Pantry on the bottom floor of the Health Center.
Benting also suggested the university hold an on-campus farmers market to give students access to fresh, affordable food.
“Food should be the last thing students have to worry about,” Benting said.