The middle of February brings with it the usual flurry of students pressured to complete midterm assignments and study for exams. Added to seemingly overwhelming academic concerns, however, is the struggle to micromanage a quickly-depleting stockpile of food points. Of course, some upperclassmen on campus boast surpluses of food points, conducive to sharing with others, but for many students, especially those on financial aid, food insecurity may start to feel like a reality in the middle of the semester. With the lack of alternative eating options and increases in dining costs, many students may find themselves compromising on regular meals to avoid running out of food points.
While West Union is undoubtedly beautiful, students complain the high prices of the food served by vendors are frustrating and unaffordable. Though the Loop or Cafe Edens may have comparable prices, West Union most notably replaced the Penn Pavilion eatery that students found to be most affordable. Moreover, despite these significant changes to on-campus dining options, Duke’s need-based financial aid policies on meal plans have not been reevaluated. According to Duke’s financial aid website, “Unlike housing, your aid is based on the cost of a standard dining plan and will not be adjusted based on the plan you choose.” In this way, Duke has left students who rely on financial aid in precarious positions in which they may make daily tradeoffs between running out of food points and supplementing their diets with unhealthy cheap or free options. For nearly half of the student body, West Union may have caused standard meal plans to become unsustainable yet unavoidable.
The director of dining services noted that prices in West Union are intended to be similar to those in the surrounding Durham area, but upcharges across campus at the Lobby Shop or Bella Union highlight the inconsistencies in Duke’s pricing. Perhaps the vendors have increased pricing to compensate for the close to 17.2 percent cut Duke takes of each vendor’s on campus profits.
Dining services maintains that these cost increases fund Duke’s commitment to provide employees with living wages, a topic of controversy last year. But by explaining away high prices with explanations of free markets and living wage, Duke has effectively passed off the burden of these price hikes onto its students. If no improvements are made to the financial aid policy on meal plans, the University imposes a zero-sum game in which students cannot simultaneously uphold their own best interests and the interests of workers. If the price hikes come as a result of Duke’s provision of living wage, we feel Duke should shoulder at least an equal burden to that of its students in upholding such a commitment.
In the meantime, the administration needs to work to improve our financial aid policy so that it mirrors that of our housing policy. Students should be allowed to pick the meal plan they feel best matches their dietary needs regardless of their financial status, and the University should work to make that desired plan affordable. If financial aid improvements are not possibly, Duke needs to contemplate the negotiation of stricter contracts with West Union vendors with the possible implementation of price ceilings. We should not settle for any form of food insecurity on campus, especially when paying extravagant prices for meal plans we have no option but to purchase.
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