Editor’s Note: Report for  America, an initiative of TheGroundTruth Project, is a national nonprofit that places reporters in local newsrooms throughout  the country and requires their  corps members to complete a service project, where they work as  journalism students. This series was done as an internship with  corps member Sarah Spicer, who covers climate change at The Wichita Eagle. Spicer served as editor and provided guidance to  the project, but the work is that of the students.

Over the last decade, tuition across the nation has risen by more than 25%, and Emporia State is no different, increasing by 24% over the last eight years.

But, an often overlooked part of the rising cost of college are meal plans. Mandatory campus dining for most schools adds to existing concerns for prospective students who already face the burden of rising tuition rates.

In Kansas, the average dining bill at a four-year university is $4,616 a year, or $2,308 per semester. This comes out to about $19.23 a day, and about $300 more a month than the average Midwest home, of three or more people, spends on food.

And the cost is growing. In the last eight years, ESU’s meal prices have risen an average of 15%, and each year across the U.S., students shell out an average of $9,212, or nearly one-quarter of their total tuition rate on campus dining, or “board,” according to the most recently available statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

At ESU, students who choose the All-Access Plan, which includes unlimited meals, pay more than half the price of a semester’s tuition, according to a data analysis conducted by the group. Although the All-Access plan costs nearly $2,000 a semester, it is the least expensive of the 12 universities who offer an unlimited meal plan out of the 18 total schools.

These findings are the result of a five months long investigation into the structure of 18 Midwest universities, located in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas by five ESU journalism students as an internship as part of a Report for America service project.

Open records were filed in all five states for the 18 universities' food service contracts and all but two, Oklahoma State University and Colorado School of Mines, responded in a timely manner.

An inescapable cost

For students who live on campus, buying a meal plan is mandatory. All of the 18 universities surveyed for this project require all freshmen and students who live on campus to buy meal plans.

At ESU, the cost of a meal plan for one semester ranges from $1,555, which is 100 meal swipes per semester and includes 450 dining dollars, and $1,926, which provides unlimited meal swipes and 125 dining dollars. Dining dollars can be used at campus restaurants owned by the food service provider.

Students often don’t use all of their meal swipes, and there are no opportunities for refunds or roll overs for unused money into the following academic year.

Paying $1,926 for the All Access Meal Plan her first semester at ESU, Elise Biays, senior elementary education major, said going into her freshman year she selected the unlimited plan because she was worried she wouldn’t get enough to eat with the other plans, but was unable to change it until the following semester.

“Coming to college, you don't really know what your schedule is gonna be like,” said Biays. “But then, after being there and seeing the quality of the food, and also establishing a schedule, I realized that just wasn't the best (choice),” Biyas said.

Junior nursing major Aubrey Powell, also opted for the All-Access Meal plan her first semester and said she rarely found herself using it. Despite the convenience and the cost, she was disappointed by the options and quality of food.

“The fact that when I went, I would not get full because the food wasn't what I wanted or it wasn't as good as I thought it was gonna be, so I would just quit going because I was like, ‘I'm not gonna eat anything if I go there,” said Powell. “So I just started eating on my own.”

One topic mentioned by students and administration is the importance of options for students with allergies, or dietary restrictions for religious or health reasons.

Dietary restrictions

When talking to administrators from different universities about their food plans, they said one of the challenges to providing food for large groups of people is catering towards those who have certain dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian or vegan, or religious restrictions, like Kosher or Halal.

In a 2019 study of U.S. adults, 4% said they always ate vegetarian and 2% said they always ate vegan.

On many of Sodexo’s individual university sites, they list different information about nutrition based on the specific university’s needs. For ESU, they include basic information about what gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian diets are, and say they work, “diligently to address students’ specific needs, especially those with food allergies, Celiac disease, or special diet needs.”

But of the 18 universities surveyed for the project, ESU was in the lower tier when it came to the number of programs or accommodations made for specialty diets.

Tyler O’Dell, junior secondary education major and transfer from Wichita State University, said while WSU was more expensive, it was worth it because of the quality of food and ability of students with dietary needs to use the dining hall.

“(WSU’s) cafeteria definitely had a wider variety of options,” O’Dell said. “Every day there is always an international food option, and it was usually the more plant based options.”

At Missouri Western State University, which like ESU’s food program is run by Sodexo, vegan and vegetarian options make up nearly 30% of their regular menu.

“You can always request something if you have certain needs... If they don't have what you need, you can ask them, and they'll try to accommodate you,” said Sean Peters, senior marketing and finance major.

Self operated universities like the University of Colorado Boulder have a bit more freedom in making decisions about the food they serve, where it comes from and the ability to offer Kosher and vegetarian stations, something Rebecca Jacobs, a senior engineering major at CU Boulder, said she really appreciated.

“(The dining hall) is one of the reasons I actually chose CU (Boulder),” said Rebecca Jacobs, senior engineering major. “I visited, and I fell in love with the fact that they try to do a lot of locally sourced meats...Very rarely do freshmen live in apartments or places where they have their own kitchen, so I think having really nutritious, sustainable and healthier food available is super important.”

Kansas State University is also self-operated, which allows them to offer students in need of dietary accommodations a wider range of food options and a separate dining space.

“When it comes to gluten free or dietary or allergies they (students) had their own separate dining,” said Chris White, a 2020 Kansas State graduate. “It was still in the dining hall, but they had their own kitchen. So if they wanted to they could select out pre-made meals to get, or there was also a stove and freezer. It was kind of set up like a nice apartment kitchen. So they didn't have to worry about cross contamination.”

When students aren't able to get the food they want or need in the cafeteria, it means they have to turn elsewhere on campus for food. Sometimes, it means an even greater expense for students.

Turning for food elsewhere

ESU students have access to three restaurants on campus, which are also run by Sodexo, offering hamburgers, sandwiches and Mexican food. More recently, ESU added a full Starbucks to the union.

Several ESU students said they increased their meals plans, not to get more access to the cafeteria, but to gain more dining dollars, which they can use at these restaurants, like the Hornet Express.

“It was just my second semester, so we still had to have the meal plan, but I just went down to the lowest level,” said Powell. “So it was only so many swipes...and it gave more money to eat at the other places.”

Although students enjoy these on campus restaurants, adding chain restaurants aren’t an option because of the size of ESU, according to Carmen Leeds, Director of the Memorial Union.

“Licensees aren't going to come in if they don't feel like there's enough people to purchase from them, for them to make money,” Leeds said. “Chick-Fil-A is not gonna come here if there's not certain parameters met. It has nothing to do with Sodexo. If Chick-Fil-A's like ‘Nope,’ (then) either you're not big enough (or) there's not enough people who are going to come through.”

At the University of Kansas, their self-operation allows them to address both of these problems and offer declining balance dining plans, which is a dollar amount students can spend at any of the 20 restaurants or campus grocery stores.

The ability to self operate

Unlike ESU, larger universities have the luxury of being able to provide food service themselves, which allows them more control.

For smaller universities, operating their own food service is not always a viable option.

“The larger the school is, the more likely it's going to be self operated, just because the financial resources will be there, just because of the larger volume of students who are buying into the dining plan, and spending money and non dining plan sales on campus,” said Jim Schilling, Director of Dining at the University of Kansas.

Instead, they often rely on two main providers, Sodexo and Chartwells. Of the 18 surveyed universities, seven use Sodexo like ESU, five use Chartwells, one uses Aramark and one uses Fresh Ideas.

Of the seven schools that use Sodexo, administrators emphasize the importance of the combination of local people and successful economies in order to be efficient.

Former ESU Sodexo general manager, Myron Bridges, has been with Sodexo for 16 years and said that each university works differently with the company. Bridges is now the operations manager at St. Louis University in Missouri.

“We have a global program but then we customize it to be unit specific,” Bridges said. “We do surveys a couple times a year and one of the exciting things about ESU was that I was able to connect with students on a day to day basis—able to have conversations on what we were doing well and what we could improve on.”

Starting this semester, Ned Price is the new Sodexo General Manager at ESU. According to Paula Minten, former dishwasher for Sodexo and Junior psychology major, Price has already made an active effort to improve the food based on students' reviews.

Earlier this semester, Price talked with her and her friends about their thoughts and made improvements the very next day.

“He’s very, very attentive about our experience and was writing things down actually, of what he could improve,” Minten said. “I suggested less cheese on the pizza because it was a mountain of cheese and really greasy. I can’t eat that much cheese, I’m lactose intolerant. I noticed that there was less cheese the next day.”

Kansas State always has been self-operated. By making their own decisions, it is easier to focus on the student’s satisfaction, according to Mary Molt, Assistant Director of Housing and Dining Services.

“We believe we can operate our own facility more efficiently,” said Molt. “We believe we can serve great food, we can be of service only to the students that we serve, and we don't have a contract company with the need to pay stockholders and need to pay somewhere else funds in order to run their food service.”

Kansas State uses their dining facilities to teach students in their dietetics and hospitality management programs, and are able to employ many more students than if they used a food service company, according to Molt.

“We pay our entry level about $10.50 an hour,” Molt said. “In addition, there's about 30% more in benefits, because our employees get annual sick leave (and) all the benefits that go with state jobs.”

With operations in all seven continents, Sodexo food services employees 420,000 people, according to their website.

Molt said the goal is not to make money, but rather to use student’s money as a means to provide them with the best experience possible—a goal shared with Schilling.

“Our ability to serve only this campus... enables us to just exist as an affiliate to the university and have our only function be here,” Schilling said.

Oklahoma State University is also self-operating, which allows them to be more flexible in responding to student complaints, according to Tracie Brown, senior director of Student Union Operations. In addition, the money that is made through dining services stays with OSU and doesn’t go to a food service vendor.

“Every dollar you spend here, as a student, as faculty, staff, stays right here at Oklahoma State,” Brown said. “(It) goes right back into supporting students through programming, through facilities that we have, and just making a better experience for our students.”

Contributing to this report were interns Lucas Lord and Ana Valdez Saravia

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