By Elliott Nguyen
The Signal met with President Kathryn Foster and Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Stallings on Tuesday, Sept. 20 to discuss specific topics regarding the fall 2022 semester, including the updated meal plans and the College’s long-term plan for housing.
The College finally brought back the meal equivalency program after long discussions with Student Government and Sodexo, the company that provides contracted food services for the College.
With its return came the introduction of Campus Town points, a system by which students could use their ID to purchase meals from certain locations in Campus Town.
Since the beginning of this fall semester, students have been figuring out how best to make use of the new feature available to them, especially since the vast majority of them had never actually been at the College during a time when meal equivalency existed.
Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Stallings explained some of the process of bringing back the program.
“Last fall, a representative from Student Government, Jared Williams, met with myself, representatives from Sodexo, and the Student Government president,” explained Stallings. “Sodexo went back and did some work to see what they could do. It became apparent that they could not reintroduce meal equivalency in the middle of an academic year when meal plans and prices were already set. So they tabled it. But they did, while during that presentation, demonstrate that they can bring meal equivalency back during what is now in this academic year.”
Once it became clear that the program could return, they set to the task of figuring out how best to achieve that outcome. Stallings explained some of the things they considered, including why meal equivalency had been removed in the first place.
“Meal equivalency, at the time was a very finite time,” he said. “And we would get extremely large crowds coming into the Student Center to take advantage of the program. And it was no longer a program that was sustainable under the new Covid restrictions.”
Thus, finding a way to reduce crowding was a priority. He brought forth this concern to Sodexo, and they addressed his concern by “giving meal equivalency essentially all day.”
“That would de-densify the campus,” Stallings said. He explained that in lieu of meal equivalency, the College ended up raising the number of points included in each meal plan over the past several semesters. “However, to fund [the return of the program], they would bring the points associated with all the meal plans back down to the normal levels that it was prior to Covid.”
Some of the negotiations with Sodexo involved determining the rates, which factor into how much students pay for their meal plans. They considered such factors as the consumer price index of Philadelphia, as well as inflation. According to Stallings, the rate should have increased by 6%, but because of when Sodexo’s proposal came through, they were able to agree to an increase of only 3.67%.
Eventually, a resolution was finalized and voted on which became what students now experience. Asked about how he felt meal equivalency has been going this semester, Stallings responded that he felt it was working well. He noted the relative lack of crowding due to meal equivalency that featured heavily in prior semesters at the College. He also praised the program’s flexibility.
“If [students] are utilizing it well, the most value of equivalency is for the more expensive meals like dinner time,” said Stallings. “That’s where you’re gonna get the best bang for your dollar.”
Campus Town points
Accompanying meal equivalency is the Campus Town points system, a new addition to meal plans this semester. Stallings described it as a “pilot” phase.
He explained how the system came about, citing many requests from students over the years to be able to use their points in Campus Town. The issue, he said, had always been that meal plans are set up through Sodexo, which does not have domain over those businesses, most of which are either chain restaurants or “mom-and-pop shops,” as he described them.
“There was never a situation or circumstance in which we can convince Sodexo to allow students to use [meal points] in another location,” said Stallings.
And yet, he said demand for the option persisted. So, along with Student Government, he created a plan to add separate points to all meal plans that could only be used in Campus Town. Of course, because of the separation, they would come at an additional cost.
The Signal did receive complaints from some students who do not eat in Campus Town and said they would rather avoid the additional cost altogether. In response to those complaints and others, Stallings added that different meal plans have different ratios of campus meal points to Campus Town points, and so students will soon be able to change their meal plan during the meal plan change window depending on their preferences. For example, if a student prefers points and Campus Town to eating at the Atrium at Eickhoff Hall, they could select a lower-price meal plan that has fewer swipes each week, then "use the savings in price to add to their Campus Town dollars bucket," said Stallings.
Stallings touted other benefits of the Campus Town point system. Among those are the fact that students can use the points tax free, and that students with financial aid can put their Campus Town points under their financial aid.
“It helps out the restaurants and venues as well,” said Stallings. “It's a very easy process to use. So far it seems to be going rather well.”
Some of the reports of issues could be attributed to user error, he said. He cited the tablets that many Campus Town restaurants use as an example, explaining that the Bluetooth which they use to connect to the card readers has a limited range. If the tablet is taken out of that range, it may disconnect.
“So far there’s been things like that,” said Stallings, but “nothing that has taken more than 10 minutes to fix.”
Last spring semester, the College announced long-term plans to phase out use of the Travers and Wolfe dorms, widely known as the Towers. Stallings elaborated on those plans and explained why the administration decided to replace them.
“Travers and Wolfe is an aged building, aged facility, with a tremendous amount of what’s called deferred maintenance,” said Stallings, referring to the many structural and operational issues the Towers have been having. “We wanted to offer our students the best experience, and we also want to be judicious about how we use students’ money.”
Knowing that any sort of work on the Towers will “displace” many students, Stallings said that the College is working with consultants in an effort to develop newer housing for students “near to campus.”