The Other Green: The Money that Fuels our Food

The boycott on Pomona’s dining halls last semester brought to attention workers’ compensation and, by extension, how students’ meal plans contribute to dining operations.

There is not always a direct connection between the meal plans, where students eat, and costs of running the dining halls.  While the costs of the meal plans do not go directly toward the meal plans, the meal plans are calculated based on the costs of running the dining halls.

“Our meal plans are not designed to make money, they are designed to cover our costs including overhead,” Miguel Ruvalcaba, General Manager at Harvey Mudd College’s Hoch-Shanahan Dining Hall.

Where does our meal
plan money go?

At the 5Cs, meal plan revenue
is typically transferred back to the college, and the dining hall
expenses are then paid from the college’s budget.

At Pitzer College’s McConnell Hall,
all the money from meal plans goes to a general budget.  The college then pays for expenses from the general
budget, and expenses include the compensation of dining hall workers and food
costs.  Jim Marchant, Vice President of Student Affairs, said that Pitzer does not “compartmentalize those revenues.”

Pomona College’s
dining hall costs, like Pitzer’s, come out of the college’s general budget.  As a result, there is no direct connection
between dining hall revenues and expenses.  

“The
dining hall costs are paid for out of the general College operating budget,
there is not a dollar for dollar match,” Pomona Treasurer Karen Sisson wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

Sisson added that Pomona does not
allocate all the costs of running the dining halls to meal plan revenues
because dining hall costs are often entangled with costs of other
services.  

“A number of people, including
me, work on dining hall issues, but no portion of our salaries are allocated to
dining services,” Sisson wrote.

Collins Dining Hall at Claremont
McKenna College has a similar system. 
Robin Aspinall, the Vice President for Business and Administration and
Treasurer at CMC, wrote in an e-mail to TSL that the money is paid directly to CMC, “just like
tuition.”  

“CMC then pays all costs of
running the College,” Aspinall wrote. She added
that CMC has a contract with Café Bon Appétit, a company that provides management and purchases the food for the college’s dining halls.  

According to Joanne Coville, Vice
President for Financial and Business Affairs at Scripps College, the money from
meal plans does not go directly to the Dining Services.  The costs of the food served at Malott
Commons and revenue from the meal plans are intertwined with the costs and
revenues from the Scripps Catering Services.

How are workers
compensated?

At each of the 5Cs, dining hall
workers are employed directly by the college. 
Therefore, workers are directly compensated by the colleges and receive
the benefits of being college employees.

The colleges cover health care,
which is often a major college expense. 
For example, Sisson said that Pomona covers 90 percent of the health premium
for all college employees earning less than $52,000 per year.

“Pomona has worked hard to make
sure that our dining hall staff are compensated at market rates and we have
also worked to provide competitive benefits,” Sisson said.

However, at all of the 5Cs except Pomona,
management staff is employed by private food management companies. CMC’s and Pitzer’s dining halls are
managed by Café Bon Appétit, while HMC’s and Scripps’s dining halls are managed by Sodexo.

What causes meal plan
prices to increase?

At all the schools, there have been
increases in food costs and labor costs, but that does not necessarily lead to increases
in meal plan prices at all schools.

Some of the 5Cs, including CMC and Pitzer, have seen both an increase in meal plan prices and an increase in the cost of providing food service.  However, increased costs are not necessarily
the cause of increases in meal plan prices, Marchant said.

The increases in food costs are
mostly the result of inflation and an increasing amount of local and organic
food, which is often more expensive than non-local and non-organic food,
said Dennis Lofland, General Manager at Pitzer’s McConnell.

Aspinall identified increases in
the amount of health insurance as one of the main factors that is causing an
increasing in labor costs.  The cost of
benefits is “primary driven by double digit increase in health insurance over
the past few years,” Aspinall wrote.  Ruvalcaba also wrote that rising health insurance costs have caused
increases in meal plan prices.

“Each year, we analyze the cost
increases and strive to minimize the impact on our students,” Ruvalcaba wrote to TSL.

Aspinall wrote that the increased
costs of both labor and food have naturally led to increases in meal plan
prices in the past few years.  

“I think
the increases [in meal plan prices] have been in line with increases in our
costs,” Aspinall wrote.

Calculating the meal plan prices is
a holistic process at Pitzer, Marchant said.

“We look
at the overall program, we look at the budget, we look at revenue we need to
generate, and that’s how we calculate the meal plan,” he said.

Marchant explained that the cost of
meal plans is not necessarily dependent on the costs to produce the food.  

“There really isn’t a strong connection
between what we charge the students and what the actual costs are,” Marchant
said.  Therefore, the costs of producing
food at Pitzer have increased in the past few years, but the meal plan prices
do not necessarily reflect this increase in food prices. 

Crossovers and
Competition

One of the unusual features of the
Claremont Colleges is the freedom of a student at any of the 5Cs to eat at
any one of the seven dining halls. 
However, there is not always equal demand at every dining hall, for a
variety of reasons.  Regardless, students
pay their meal plans to the individual college, even though they may not always
eat at the dining hall.

However, the Claremont University
Consortium (CUC) runs a financial exchange between the colleges in order to
adjust for these situations when students eat at another dining hall, called
“crossovers.”

For example, if a CMC student eats at Pitzer’s McConnell, CMC will have to pay Pitzer a designated amount of
money to compensate for Pitzer providing the student with a meal.  Colleges must pay $3.25 for every breakfast, $4.50 for every lunch and $5.50 for every dinner
that a student eats at another school.

A college that is a “net
importer” of students will receive a pay-out from CUC, while a college that is a “net exporter” will pay the requisite amount of money to CUC.

For example, Pitzer is a net
importer of students for lunch, because many students from Scripps and CMC come
to McConnell for lunch.  However, Pitzer
is a net exporter for dinner.

According to Ruvalcaba, HMC is a
net importer of between 6,000 and 11,000 meals per plan.  This is the highest balance among the 5Cs.

Lofland said that he is not
motivated to bring students from other colleges to McConnell for financial
reasons.  However, he said that
crossovers can be a validation that their food is a success.  

“If we’re an importer that means we’re doing
something right,” Lofland said.  “I
wouldn’t want Pitzer students going somewhere else because the food is bad.”

At Scripps, the dining halls are
not motivated by competition to attract more students, according to Coville. 

“Our focus is on
providing healthy tasty meals to our students and beyond that I would not say
that we are highly competitive with the other colleges,” she wrote.

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