Required meal plan is an imperfect system for some

If you’re reading this op-ed, you are likely a St. Olaf student. And if you’re a St. Olaf student, you’re probably on a full-time meal plan. 

With the exception of students granted off-campus status, and those living in one of the honor houses, we are required to subscribe to one of three meal plans with varying ratios of cafeteria meals to flex-dollars.

For some students, like me, this is a pretty good set-up.

I don’t like to cook and I only eat two meals a day anyway, so the 14-meal plan works out pretty great for me. Then, with all the flex-dollars, I have a healthy coffee budget and plenty to fall back on in the event I accidentally miss a meal or want to go to the Cage instead of Stav Hall for whatever reason.

There was a slight hiccup this week when I missed dinner and the Cage had closed early, but that was merely a product of circumstance with the snowstorm, so that is neither really here nor there.

But I imagine for some people this setup can feel a little restrictive.

If someone has a 21-meal plan and accidentally misses lunch, not only have they missed a prepaid meal, but they also have no flex-dollars to get a replacement meal. This leaves them with two options, either skip the meal or pay for a new one out-of-pocket.

That’s a crummy deal, especially as they have already paid for this food.

Oftentimes folks talk about how weird it is that you can’t stack meals week-to-week, and it’s true.

It’s odd that when a student pays for a given amount of meals that some of them magically disappear if you don’t use them within a specific timeframe.

It’s almost as if the process of keeping students fed is treated like a rental business. If a student pays for a meal plan, they should be able to receive what that meal plan entails.

But still, even the idea of stacking meals does not solve the previous issue of if someone with a 21-meal plan misses out on a meal one day (which is very possible considering how busy Oles tend to keep themselves).

If that person misses a meal, and the caf closes for that meal-period, it eliminates the potential for the student to redeem that food (which again, they’ve already paid for).

It’s a tricky situation to deal with.

Perhaps the Cage could pre-prepare box lunches set aside which students could redeem a meal-swipe for to receive, sort of like the bag lunch line, but open as long as the Cage is.

But this idea encounters trouble when the question of where these meals would spatially fit amongst the pre-existing merchandise, how many would be on hand at a given time, what food items they would be constituted of and how it would be able to accomodate people of varying dietary restrictions and preferences.

Perhaps the idea could be explored of a system that could refund students for meals unspent.

That seems more fair in the sense of ensuring that students are getting what they pay for, especially important given that tuition costs increase every year.

However, the concern with this idea is the worry that it could potentially incentivize students to skip meals and become malnourished.

So I’m not coming up with any exact, solid plan here, but the issues with meal plans are interesting and should be continued to be explored.

I think what makes this problem so hard to solve is that deep-down it strikes at the same issue that so many student life matters derive from: what is a good balance between allowing students to manage their own lives, and the college being an institution that has a certain obligation to take care of them?

Chaz Mayo ’18 ( is from Rice Lake, Wis. He majors in Theater and Medieval Studies..