One year later: Pomona’s Ultimate Meal Plan faces accessibility concerns with students

A paper on the left reads "Petition" In the middle is a scale showing money on the heavier side than food. On the right is Cecil crying.
The Ultimate Meal Plan at Pomona faces disputes from students who wish to develop alternative dining options. (Katherine Tan • The Student Life)

Pomona College’s decision to implement a compulsory Ultimate Meal Plan for all students living on campus last year has received mixed responses from students, including a petition this semester calling for the administration to make the meal plan optional.

The adoption of the Ultimate Meal Plan was announced April 21, 2021, in an email to Pomona College students from Dean of Campus Life Josh Eisenberg. Citing a need to lower density during peak times due to COVID-19 and provide students with more dining choice flexibility, the plan was implemented beginning in fall 2021 when students returned to campus from the pandemic.

“At the end of the last school year, we received positive feedback from many students who appreciated not having to worry about the availability of food despite their socio-economic status, the opportunity to get a meal or snack whenever they wanted it, and that they could use the dining halls as a study/hang out space,” Avis E. Hinkson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, told TSL in an email. 

Pomona is the only 5C that requires students living on campus to have an unlimited meal plan, which costs $4,106 per semester. Other colleges offer weekly swipe-based dining plans, with the standard 16-meal plan ranging from $4,086 to $4,534 across the other 4Cs. 

Arranged by Seohyeon Lee PO ’25, the petition calls on the administration to create lower meal plan options and make the unlimited plan optional. The petition lists challenges faced by students with dietary restrictions, such as unlabeled foods and limited allergy-free options.

“Bottom line, it is unreasonable to force students with dietary restrictions to pay the full price of the Ultimate Meal Plan despite inaccessible and limited options,” the petition states. “Students have the right to address their dietary needs in their own terms.”

Students with allergies are limited to an allergen “friendly” station at Frank Dining Hall during its hours of operation from Monday to Thursday. There is no advertised allergen “friendly” station at Frary, which operates all days of the week. 

Cross-contamination and unlabeled foods also provide obstacles for students such as Jemma Stollberg PO ’26, who is allergic to egg-based foods. 

“It is almost impossible for me to do cross-campus dining because there is a very bad allergy labeling system,” Stollberg said. “It tells me what is vegan and gluten-free, but not what has eggs in it … I put up with all of that every single day just to have lunch.”

Students without allergy issues who live in Pomona’s Oasis KGI Commons housing in the Claremont Village said the meal plan is inaccessible and poses financial challenges. 

Gaby Poplawski PO ’25 has turned to cooking their own meals while trying to recover the cost of the meal plan. 

“I’ve been trying to apply for things like the CalFresh program so I can balance the costs,” Poplawski said. “When I heard we had to all be unlimited, I was pretty sad about that. It felt like double pay and felt like wasting. Especially given the fact that right now I’m paying for college on my own and trying to just figure that out.”

Similarly, Stollberg said that paying for the meal plan diverts money away from her spending toward allergy-friendly groceries. 

“It is hard to justify spending more money on food,” Stollberg said. “There is an incentive to only eat at the dining hall.”

The college said that the meal plan was conceptualized, among other reasons, to create community. But students who live in Oasis and have been on the unlimited meal plan for at least a year said they struggle to understand this justification. 

“We’re [in Oasis], kind of there on our own,” Poplawski said. “We don’t need to also have the unlimited meal plan as a way to build [community] here. I think we’re all, at Pomona, pretty enthusiastic about the community with each other because that’s our culture.”

Oasis residents are required to have the Ultimate Meal Plan because it is technically “on-campus” housing. However, off-campus students have an option for a 10-meal plan. This requirement, Hinkson added, allows them to engage with the community while also being able to eat at home.

Some Pomona students said they want a return to the original swipe-based meal plan while keeping the unlimited plan as an option. In a series of seven street interviews, all the students said they would consider other options besides the ultimate plan if they were given the choice. 

“I understand the intention behind it,” Emily Zhu PO ’26 said. “But I feel like there should be more options for different people because everyone has different habits. “

Some students appreciate the convenience that the Ultimate Meal Plan affords, but recognize that the plan doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

“I don’t leave campus very often, so I think the majority of my meals still come from the dining hall,” Mitchell Keenan PO ’25 said. “But I get that other people are probably different.” 

Hinkson encouraged students with dietary constraints to meet with Nutrition Systems Manager Liz Ryan or other members of the dining staff to identify how their needs can be best addressed. The Pomona administration is open to student input in response to alternative options in the future of dining meal plans, Hinkson said.

“Having had various meal plans with different configurations of meals per week in the past, as always we welcome your input as we continue to fine tune our meal plan,” Hinkson said. “The College remains committed to addressing food insecurity, and the ultimate meal plan has met that goal.”

Seohyeon Lee PO ’25 is a graphic artist for TSL.

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