Students eat hidden UHDS cafeteria fees

Tracy Warner

The dining plan at Western Illinois University is one of the most cutting-edge programs in the country, according to the University of Housing and Dining Services Web site.Students at Western pay for what they eat.

UHDS does not subsidize other students’ meal programs and students do not pay for missed meals. The dining program also requires that the students budget their own purchasing power and remain conscious of the costs.

Some Western students have become very conscious of the costs – so conscious that they have begun to question the surcharges that they have had to pay at the dining centers.

According to the UHDS Web site, when students entered Western in the fall semester of 2006, they paid $1,285.

The charge is referred to as “board,” and approximately 50 percent of the board charge is taken off of the top in order to allow for fixed costs, like the salaries of those who work in the dining centers and for the purchase of furniture and equipment to prepare food and wash dishes. The remainder of the board is given to the student for purchasing power.

Students may eat anywhere on campus, but it is beneficial to eat in the residence halls since they have already paid the overhead for their dining program. They are also able to use their a la carte meal plan in any food establishment on campus, but because pre-packaged food available in the University Union is considered retail, they will be charged an overhead in these places.

Students who live on campus can also purchase a flex plan, which is a multi-purpose plan that allows them to use their student IDs at vending machines, copy centers and laundry facilities. The flex plan also provides off-campus students with a variety of dining options because they can use them in the residence halls and in the Union Food Court.

When students use the flex plan in the residence hall dining centers, they pay a mark up at the point of purchase to cover their overhead expenses.

According to Jack Schoonover, director of residential administration, students who run out of board points, off-campus students and faculty and staff are all assigned a 40 percent surcharge to their purchases when they are made in the dining centers.

“This overhead charge is based on usage rather than upfront since we would have no way to know how much flex would be used on an occasional basis,” Schoonover said. “If a student has a board plan and runs out of points, then they should be purchasing more dining points rather than using flex.”

Many students at Western are not happy about the surcharges that they are having to pay and are beginning to voice their opinions about the dining center policies.

“I don’t think it is fair to the people who don’t have a meal plan or for the people who run out of points to have to pay 40 percent more,” said Melissa Baltazar, senior communication major.

The dining centers also charge a 60 percent overhead in addition to the sales tax when a person uses cash to pay for their purchases.

“When someone pays cash, they are perceived as a member of the public when they do the transaction in the residence halls, so that is why there is an overhead,” said Al Harris, associate vice president for Student Services. “We have to be careful, otherwise we would be subsidizing the students who have a board plan.”

When students purchase food, the amount is deducted from their meal plan and is displayed on the register as they check out. Students are also able to track their balances against a posted weekly budget sheet on STARS to help them stay within their budgets. Students who find that they need to purchase more points can do so through their STARS account or by going to Seal Hall. When additional points are purchased, students do not pay an overhead charge.

According to Schoonover, information about the board plan and overhead charges can be found on the UHDS Web site and is also given out to the students when they are applying for housing at Western.

The overhead charge is also mentioned in the housing contract and is given to the students and families at all of the Student Orientation and Registration programs over the summer.