IUP meal plans: dining at double the inflation rate

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Natalie K. Mumaw, a senior natural science major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Stapleton Library, May 7. Photo by Aysa E. Alwood.

A Civic Project series: Aramark chronicles

By Aysa E. Alwood

INDIANA – When Natalie K. Mumaw arrived at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in fall 2009, the university required her to pay for a campus meal plan, like every other freshman.

For that 2009-2010 academic year, Mumaw’s mandatory meal deal cost $2,418. For her 2010-2011 sophomore year, she moved to less-expensive off-campus housing. But her on-campus meal plan grew more expensive — to $2,460, a 1.7 percent increase roughly comparable to the rate of inflation.

In her 2011-2012 junior year, she decided to save money. She thought about dumping her campus meal system altogether. Instead, she downsized to the least-expensive option — $1,532 per academic year.

Finally, in her 2012-2013 senior year, Mumaw, a natural science major, opted for the ultimate money-saving meal plan: She ditched the IUP dining system for good.

“I thought about getting rid of it last year,” Mumaw said during a March 12 interview in Stapleton Library. “I was just too lazy.”

For her final year at IUP, she was keenly attentive to cost. Since 2009, Mumaw reckoned, she had spent $6,410 on campus dining, an amount roughly equal to a year’s undergraduate in-state tuition at IUP for her final 2012-2013 academic year.

So during her senior year, Mumaw bought her own groceries and made her own meals at her South Eighth Street apartment. She estimated her cost at between $800 and $1,000 – at least one-third less than her junior-year campus-dining plan and a fraction of what she paid for meals during her first two years at IUP.

The do-it-yourself approach takes more time, Mumaw acknowledged. But she urged other students to follow her example, unplug from the campus meal plan and save a bundle.

“The money saved is definitely worth the time, in my mind,” she said.

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Michael W. Lemasters, executive director of housing, residential living and dining, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Ruddock Hall, May 6. Photo by Aysa E. Alwood.

MUMAW IS one of 8,779 IUP students who lived off-campus and made their own plans for meals in the 2012-2013 academic year, said Michael W. Lemasters, the university’s executive director of housing, residential living and dining, during an April 4 interview in his Ruddock Hall office.

Students who lived on campus and were required to pay for a meal plan numbered about 4,000, Lemasters said. An additional 2,600 lived off-campus but chose to dine on-campus. Thus, about 6,600 students – less than half the student body — paid for meals provided by the university and its exclusive campus food contractor Aramark.

Like most college expenses, meal plan costs are rising. But prices of the meal plans are rising faster than most expenses. In the 2002-2003 academic year, for example, IUP offered a standard 19-meals-a-week dining plan (including $100 in Flex credit; see sidebar, below) that cost $1,828. In 2013-2014, the same standard 19-meals-a-week plan (including $300 in Flex credit) will cost $3,100, an increase of 70 percent.

By comparison, tuition has risen too, but at a slower rate. In 2002-2003, in-state IUP undergraduate tuition cost $4,016 per academic year, according to the undergraduate catalog. For 2012-2013, tuition was $6,248, a 56 percent hike. (Tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year has not yet been set.)

IUP food-plan prices have risen faster than the nation’s overall rate of inflation for food, as calculated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The university sets its meal-plan prices by the BLS consumer price index category called food away from home, Lemasters said.

The FAFH category includes meals purchased at dining establishments that range from concession stands to cafeterias to full-service restaurants. IUP is classified as a non-commercial food service under the FAFH definition.

Most years, IUP raises its meal-plan prices by the rate at which the FAFH index rises, plus an additional half a percent, Lemasters said.

But actual meal-plan rates charged by the university since the 2002-2003 academic year show that IUP’s prices have risen at roughly twice the rate of the food-away-from-home inflation index, as measured by the BLS. Between January 2002 and January 2013, the FAFH index rose by 36.4 percent, about half as much as the rise in IUP meal-plan prices during the same period.

 

AS A SENIOR, Mumaw said she cut her food expenses by about two-thirds when she cancelled her campus meal plan and started making her own meals at her off-campus home.

“Taking the extra time to budget the money spent on a meal plan can really stretch out and actually save you money,” Mumaw said during a May 1 interview in Stapleton Library. “It’s more time-consuming. But as a college student with limited funds, it’s definitely worth it.”

Aysa E. Alwood, a senior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from York.

Sidebar: Aramark, IUP’s kitchen

In 2012, Indiana University of Pennsylvania signed a five-year $18 million contract with Aramark for exclusive supply of all food on campus, including campus events.

Aramark has dished out dining services at IUP for about 25 years, said Michael W. Lemasters, IUP executive director of housing, residential living and dining, during an April 25 interview in his Ruddock Hall office. The current contract is the university’s fifth with the Philadelphia-based multinational that employs more than 250,000 workers and serves clients in 22 countries.

Aramark also caters to more than 600 colleges across North America, 13 of them in Pennsylvania.

Sidebar: Flex — mad money for campus meals

Indiana University of Pennsylvania students can choose among several standard meal-plan options.

Or they can just buy Flex credit for Aramark-provided food, whether they purchase campus meal plans or not.

“Flex works like a prepaid credit card and is deducted off your I-Card when you swipe,” according to the university website.

Flex account balances can be increased in $25 increments, up to a maximum of $500. Balances can be adjusted on URSA, the university’s online records system.

Most students who buy campus meal plans opt for Flex accounts as well, according to Michael W. Lemasters, IUP executive director of housing, residential living and dining,  during an April 25 interview in his Ruddock Hall office. Of IUP’s 6,600 meal-plan customers, only about a hundred choose not to add Flex dollars to their accounts.

But for those who do choose Flex, an additional cost may be included. As the university’s dining website notes, balances on Flex accounts carry over from fall to spring semesters. But the carryover ends there.

“[A]t the end of the Spring semester, the dining contract is concluded and any remaining Flex dollar balance is forfeited,” the website says.

That forfeiture is collected by IUP, not Aramark, the university’s food contractor.

How much does the forfeited Flex amount to?

“Less than 60 cents per student,” Lemasters said.

Sixty cents a head for the 6,600 IUP students who purchase meal plans amounts to a small year-end bonus for IUP of just under $4,000.

The unused Flex dollars pay for dining utility bills and miscellaneous bills, Lemasters said.

Sidebar: Standard IUP meal plan prices, trends

 The following chart lists standard food plans, features and prices offered by Indiana University of Pennsylvania to students who dine on campus. The data cover a dozen academic years, beginning in 2002-2003 and concluding with the 2013-2014 academic year set to begin in the fall.

Meals/week               2002-2003                   2013-2014                   % +/-

14                                $1,532                            $2,362                         + 54%

19                                $1,828*                          $3,100**                     + 70%

*standard plan price includes $100 Flex credit

**standard plan price includes $300 Flex credit

Source: IUP Undergraduate Catalogs and IUP Office of Housing and Residence Life. Prices do not include Flex supplements. (See sidebar, above.)

Sidebar: P.O.D. price comparisons

Indiana University of Pennsylvania and its contracted food service Aramark recently added a new wrinkle to campus commerce – two Provisions on Demand stores.   The P.O.D. stores operate on the ground levels of two residential housing projects — Putt Hall and Wallwork Suites.

On the website, the stores promise “quality, selection and value.” A “brand pillar” is “fair pricing.”

But a comparison of prices for a selection of basic groceries sold at the campus P.O.D.s showed that the campus convenience stores were charging nearly double what the local Walmart charged for the same grocery products.

Walmart was chosen for price comparisons for two reasons:

  • IUP Students shop there. A bus route  connects the university and the discount retailer on State Route 286 about two miles southwest of the campus. IUP students ride the bus for free with a flash of an I-Card.
  •  IUP and Aramark (and a consultant) use Walmart when they set prices at the P.O.D. stores, according to Michael W. Lemasters, IUP executive director of housing, residential living and dining, LINK:  http://www.iup.edu/housing/  during an April 25 interview in his Ruddock Hall office.  

An additional price comparison showed the P.O.D. stores also charged more than a nearby Sheetz convenience store.

Here’s how the price comparisons were conducted:

April 11 prices were recorded on 19 different items in the P.O.D store in Putt Hall. The items included cookies, pasta, ketchup, mayonnaise and laundry detergent.

Later the same day, the same 19 items were found in the local Walmart at a lower price.

Receipts from both stories showed that the P.O.D. store charged 78 percent more than Walmart and 19 percent more than Sheetz.

Following are details of P.O.D. price comparisons with the two competitors.

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Sidebar: New dining digs

By 2015, Indiana University of Pennsylvania  will have two new dining facilities and a renovated Folger Food Court, according to Michael Lemasters, executive director of housing, residential living and dining, during an April 4 interview in his Ruddock Hall office.

Lemasters said the new dining arrangements were a result of focus groups of students (campus residents and commuters; undergraduates and grad students), faculty members and IUP staff workers.  The focus groups were led by a consultant in Ruddock Hall in April 2012.

Focus group subjects said they wanted two things — shorter walking distances to dining facilities and more small venues, Lemasters said. So, a new Crimson Café will rise beside Stapleton Library and Fisher Auditorium. It will offer food court-style dining with vendors similar to those in Folger Food Court. It will offer pizza, burgers, a soup/sandwich kiosk and a Starbucks.  IUP plans complete construction by fall 2014.

The new North Dining Hall will replace the Keith Hall  classroom building that sits between the Northern Suites and Wallwork Hall residential buildings. The new hall will offer all-you-can-eat dining, as will the renovated Folger.

Total seating in on-campus dining facilities will increase, Lemasters said. Current capacity is 1,275; following construction and renovations, capacity will rise to 1,650, an increase of 29 percent.

The renovated Folger Food Court and the Crimson Café will seat about 450 each, Lemasters said. The North Dining hall seat around 500. The HUB Rock II will seat 250.

IUP estimates campus meal-plan participation will grow 15 percent, according to the Campus Dining Master Plan.  IUP has estimated that more than 7,000 students will have meal plans by the completed construction and renovations, according to the $37 million plan.

Result: Students will have more and better dining options, Lemasters said

“You can’t really relax in Fosters,” Lemasters said. “You either know someone is waiting for your table or you can hear everyone else’s conversation where you are sitting. I think the new dining facilities could be more than a gathering place.”

Sidebar: For more information

For more information about this story, or to get involved, contact the following sources:

Office of Housing, Residential Living and Dining
Michael W. Lemasters
Executive director
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Ruddock Hall, Suite G-37
1099 Maple Street
Indiana, Pa 15705-1075
Phone: 724-357-2696
Fax: 724-357-5762
Email: mlemaste@iup.edu

Aramark Corporation
Jennifer Braughler
Marketing manager
Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Lock Haven universities
East Region Social Media Champion
1110 Grant St.
Indiana Pa.  15705
Phone: 724-357-3102
Email: Braughler-Jennifer@aramark.com

Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment
Chris M. Kitas
Associate director
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
402 Sutton Hall
1011 South Drive
Indiana, Pa.  15705
Phone: 724-357-5562
Fax: 724-357-3833
Email: ckitas@iup.edu

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