By Isabel Hicks
Ed Clark, the head chef for Bon Appétit at Colorado College, cuts right to the chase. Every week CC’s shipment of blueberries costs between $2,500 and $3,000, Clark says. That means a bowl of blueberries at Rastall costs around $4, or roughly 40% of the fee students pay for a meal. With that knowledge, it begins to make sense why our meal plan is so expensive — $4,700 for each student every year. But does it have to be that way?
The meal value may be high when it comes to foods served buffet-style at Rastall, but what about the marked-up snack food prices at places like the C-store? Clark details how the inflation covers the fees Bon Appétit must pay to equip and employee these stores. But the majority of the mark-up is due to the labels on our food.
“The Preserve gets its food from UNFI, and the markup is that much more,” Clark says. UNFI stands for United Natural Foods, a transnational company that distributes only certified organic, natural, and specialty foods. “As soon as you put organic or cage free, as soon as you label it, the price goes up,” Clark says.
It’s a luxury that CC provides students with ethically sourced snack food, despite the cost. But realistically, not everyone has the privilege to make that choice.
According to Clark, Bon Appétit is “in the process of actually taking some of that stuff away … perhaps introducing some less expensive drinks, less expensive chips.”
“No one wants a $7 bag of chips at the end of the day,” he explains. “It’s good to have a couple of things like that, but not the whole store.”
Clark says “in the process” means trying to get the school behind it. “It’s very important because the school says we want to have a place that has this particular type of food,” he says. “But I think … it’s probably oversaturated. We can do both, it’s just finding that spot.”
Robert Moore, CC Vice President of Finance and Administration/Treasurer, is in charge of financially managing Bon Appétit and the meal plan.
“Our contract does not tell Bon Appetit what to stock,” Moore says. “The way they make money is to stock things students will buy. I think if students said, hey, we’d like to have brand X crackers, and there was enough interest, Bon Appétit would stock that.”
The quality of CC’s food has a distinct reputation that distinguishes it from other similar schools. Bon Appétit’s emphasis on local, organic ingredients goes hand-in-hand with the environmental stewardship CC emulates and uses to attract a certain kind of student. Would the administration be OK with decreasing the availability of healthy, expensive food in favor of a cheaper meal plan if students demanded it?
“I think our first desire is to serve students,” Moore says. “What’s hard for us to figure out is what do most students want … But there’s nothing in the contract that tells [Bon Appétit] what to sell or not sell.”
It’s frustrating that people often have to choose between sustainable, healthy foods and their cheaper, less ethical alternatives. It’s what makes eating in an environmentally responsible way a luxury only realistic for the wealthy. Right now, Bon Appétit is providing CC students this luxury at a high cost. What does this mean for students who are on financial aid? Should we trade environmentally friendly snack options for a less expensive meal plan? And why is it so hard to have both?
Food insecurity is a very real problem CC students face today. A full meal plan on average provides two meals a day for every student. If students are already struggling due to the burdensome cost of the meal plan, having to figure out where that third meal will come from is an added stressor.
“There is an alarming number out there, I think it is around 200 students who are stressed out because they don’t have enough food to keep them full, which is sad to me,” Clark says. Bon Appétit and CC administration are both aware of this problem and have different strategies to fix it.
Clark, Bon Appétit manager Randy Kruse, anthropology professor Mario Montano, and Senior Associate Dean of Students Rochelle Mason, among others, have pioneered The Food Advisory Committee to try and address some of these issues. One idea? Using meal plan money to create some semblance of a food kitchen at CC for struggling students.
“We’re thinking about taking one of these rooms here [in Worner] and keeping supplies … provisions for their dorms, whether it’s toiletries, toothpaste, any kind of food items, and students can come and fill their pantry up without being embarrassed,” Clark says. Criteria for access would be “just on an honor system.”
Moore has also heard about the proposal for the food kitchen. “We looked at the food pantry [idea] … there was concern that would stigmatize the students who went into the pantry,” Moore says. There were also realistic concerns about the location. “You want students to know where it is, you want them to be able to get to it, but you don’t want people who live near us shopping for free in our food pantry,” he says.
The administration has a different strategy to fight food insecurity. Last year, students could choose between three different sizes of meal plan, A, B, and C. Financial aid provided only the C meal plan to students in need.
“There was a concern about well, why do we say that the students who are the neediest get the less expensive meal plan and the least food?” Moore says. To address this issue, all financial aid was moved so the B meal plan would be covered. “So then it was because you’re on financial aid you get this [meal plan], and because you’re not you get this one. What is the justice of that?” Moore continues. Administration thought the fairest solution was to put everybody on the same meal plan. Today, all students pay $4,700 a year for their meal plan, which is an increase in cost from last year’s C plan.
“The administration [and I] thought that was a better way to address this food insecurity,” Moore says.
It seems counterintuitive to address the problem of food insecurity by increasing the cost of the meal plan. Yet Moore asserts that every student in need gets the full cost of their meal plan covered.
“The Real Food Fight,” an article by Monica Black and Rebecca Glazer published in a 2017 edition of Cipher, points out how this strategy is a double-edged sword. “Even though CC claims to meet 100 percent of financial need, almost all aid awards include loans,” the article states. “These loans are often applied to the student’s living expenses, meaning that students are borrowing money in order to pay for the school’s meal plan — money they might not otherwise need to borrow if they were allowed to spend less than [$2,350] per semester on food.”
Almost no students are allowed to opt out of the meal plan. Student life determines this on a case-by-case basis, and exceptions are granted only for dietary or religious reasons, not financial.
“If people want to study the issue I’m all for that, but if people think we’re going to start taking money from the meal plan and diverting it to the food pantry, then we have to talk with Bon Appétit, because that’s a change in the contract,” Moore says.
Students can contact Randy Kruse for more information on the Food Advisory Committee.