Campus meals are a big deal
But are they a good deal? Students aren’t wholly convinced
Yer Thao, a regular at the Marketplace Café, sat outside of the Bell Memorial Union enjoying her lunch on a recent afternoon. She’s been drawn to Chico State’s largest eatery by its variety and convenience, but as a college student living on a tight budget, even the draw of quick hot food may not lure her back this fall.
“It’s way too expensive. I usually spend about $20 to $30 a week,” said Thao, a junior, who’s usually on campus four days each week and regularly purchases food from Associated Students establishments. “It’s a good thing I only eat once a day on campus.”
AS runs the university’s two largest meal providers: Whitney Hall Dining in the campus’ biggest dorm facility and the Marketplace Café in the student-owned and -operated Bell Memorial Union. Its food service also includes smaller locations such as convenience stores Butte and Holt stations, as well as coffee shops and even vending machines.
Since AS has a monopoly on food sales, bargains generally aren’t found on campus. In fact, many students say the food is overpriced and not very good. But Jeffery Soon, associate director of AS Food Service, says that’s not the whole story.
Soon’s main goal is to provide the best product at the best price, and that no easy feat considering he’s responsible for satisfying the palates of thousands of customers. The campus’ food business has been steady, he says, and is actually improving.
While Soon constantly works on the quality of the food, his biggest concern these days is with the rising costs of food production. He says he’s paying distributors more for certain products, but the increases aren’t being passed on to the customers—yet.
“At this point we are trying to hold the prices [steady] for as long as we can,” he said.
That’s small consolation for penny-pinching students who have other price complaints, including gripes about the meal plans offered on campus.
Freshmen who purchase meal plans offered as part of their housing package often opt for a plan allotting them 15 meals a week at Whitney Hall Dining. But if they don’t eat there, they can buy food at any of the other food venues on campus for up to $6 per meal. However, if they spend more than their allotment, they have to make up the difference out of pocket.
Senior Kelly King remembers this scenario well. Back when she had the meal plan as a freshman, she didn’t always eat at Whitney, often opting instead for food from the Marketplace Café or one of the convenience stores. Ultimately, she spent so much of her own money that during her second semester she decided not to buy the meal plan at all.
King said it would be difficult to eat on campus under today’s meal plan.
“Maybe you could stay within the $6, but it would be really hard and you’d come really close,” she said. “If you want to buy a drink, too, you’d probably go over.”
Soon admits bottled drinks and packaged foods are some of the most expensive food items on campus. But then again, the high pricing, especially at the BMU, helps to make up for the costs of building the facility and for the services provided there.
In response, many students avoid the high prices by eating off campus. It’s easy considering the numerous eateries just downtown.
Despite the fact that many Chico State students prefer eating downtown, Soon doesn’t consider the eateries there as competition because they all offer something a little different—"I don’t look at what they’re doing and then try to copy or make better what they’re doing.”
Variety is big deal for Soon when he looks at what to put on the menu. He said he makes himself available to discuss his decisions, and that every year he likes to try something new based on his customers’ responses.
The cafeteria-style Marketplace Café is usually filled with customers from opening ’til closing time. It offers about six stations of different foods ranging from salads to sandwiches and walk-up counters allow students to see their meals being prepared.
Within the café, the only station that’s contracted out is Wok ‘n’ Roll, which comes from the Chinese fast-food restaurant of the same name. Other stations offer meals that Soon and the food service staff choose. There are staple items such as hamburgers, fries and chicken, but to keep the rest of the menu fresh, the other options are rotated. Varieties of pizzas, for example, get switched every few weeks.
When it comes to the bottom line, Soon wants to remind students that if they buy food on campus, the money gets poured back into supporting them because it stays in AS funding.
“We all profit when the money spent remains within the student body,” he said.
For cash-strapped students like Thao, that’s not much of a silver lining. In fact, she’ll probably have to forgo campus dining and instead bring her own food.
“I’m just going to have to cook and take leftovers to school,” she said. “It’s such a hassle … but I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”