Over-charged on campus food prices?

Rockie Brown

Rockie Brown

Blinded, I shuffled along the breezeway in The Union, being pushed along by the lunchtime crowd into the wider swath of people jumbled in the Market. People are checking out options in the Home Zone or jumping into the Stir-fry line that has already wound around behind the salad bar. An apple: 99 cents. More than $6 for a steaming plate of Chinese. I might skip a drink; lunch adds up fast.

Walking into the commons with a tray full of food, one barely notices the dull roar of conversations, plates and silverware clashing, an occasional laugh that’s so loud you’re immediately annoyed by whoever produced the sound. Most students go through this process daily, trying to find a place to sit and eat, unwillingly overhearing many conversations. Most have never overheard someone say, “Gee, the food prices on campus are fantastic!”

When it comes to the price of food on campus, there seems to be some general despondence among students. Why are food prices so high? How do they get that way? Who sets prices for meal plans?

The answers seem to lie primarily with restaurant-style dining, convenience, the market and the price of petroleum.

According to David Menzel, the Food Service Director of SDSU, food pricing is a multi-step process that begins every July with a retail analysis.

This retail analysis estimates food pricing, labor and other costs such as the transporting of food. The prices are set for the rest of the year. This analysis is then presented to Doug Wermedal, assistant vice president of student affairs, to be approved or amended. The signs we see in The Union are made after approval.

Because of this process, Campus Dining can lose money, like from the price of milk doubling and flour almost tripling. Dining prices stay the same because they want to “maintain the integrity of students’ meal plans,” said Menzel.

While this process seems all right, when a student buys a banana in The Union for 99 cents and the next day goes to Wal-Mart and pays the same amount for a bunch of bananas, the assumption is that they are being over-charged.

According to Menzel, however, pricing is kept as reasonable as possible. “Can we compete with Wal-Mart? No,” he said, but he also argued that being compared with Wal-Mart wasn’t comparing apples to apples.

Unlike Wal-Mart, Aramark does not have the ability to store vast bulk quantities of product. Wal-Mart also has the ability to lower prices on one product to lure people in, but then make it up when customers buy impulse items that are more profitable. The dining areas and C-stores on campus do not have this luxury while still trying to cater to 3,500 students.

Styrofoam is another roadblock for campus dining. A recent survey showed that 80 percent of students eating in The Union use Styrofoam containers even if they sit down to eat, Menzel said. Since Styrofoam is made using petroleum, every time the price of oil goes up, Dining Services feels the pinch. With an average of 10,000-15,000 transactions per week in The Union, that could be as many as 12,000 Styrofoam containers.

Deidra Reuman, a freshman general studies major, eats most meals in The Union but also shops at the C-store. “The C-store is really convenient, but the price puts you at a disadvantage,” she said.

Menzel said the C-store prices try to be more competitive with Bozied’s or Kum & Go. This checked out with several products from the C-store compared with the same ones from Bozied’s. Bottled water and Peanut Butter M&M’s were 20 cents cheaper at Bozied’s, but Pringles were the same price and Lunchables were almost a dollar more compared with the C-store.

This portrayal is not quite fair because an undisclosed percentage of every dollar spent for food on campus goes back to the university, according to Menzel.

Tiffani Kuebler, a freshman nursing major, doesn’t mind the food prices on campus so much but is more irritated by the meal plan policies.

“I think it’s ridiculous we don’t get our money back at the end of the year,” she said. With a little over a month left of school, she still has over $300 more than the recommended amount.

Reuman also faces this problem and plans to start buying more necessities like shampoo and soap at the C-store to use up her flex dollars that will otherwise be forfeited at the end of the semester.

So who sets the prices of meal plans? The University Food Service Advisory Committee reviews the proposed core price of meal plans, and the final decision goes to the Board of Regents. The same goes for a bond and utility fee that is tacked onto the core price of the meal plan.

Though not approved yet by the Board of Regents, $155.39 is the proposed bond and utility fee that “covers the cost of bond service for renovating Larson and Medary Commons, as well as the cost for utilities in these buildings,” according to a Dining Membership form. Top that off with sales tax, and you have the full price of a meal plan.

UFSAC, the committee with a voice in almost everything food-related on campus, is co-chaired by Doug Wermedal and David Menzel; also on the committee are faculty, student organization, residence hall and athletic department representatives.

Students are welcome to attend UFSAC meetings, which are held every other Thursday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in the Student Union Room 103. The next meetings will be April 3, April 17 and May 1

#1.882665:4198869035.jpg:foodprices_SB.jpg:Affordable food products line the aisles at Hy-Vee, causing students to wonder if they are being overcharged at Campus Dining facilities.:Stephen Brua