The $5 million dollar donation from SAIC alumnus LeRoy Neiman gave the school an opportunity, beginning May 2012, to present students with a nutritional security net that never existed before: a meal plan. While the idea shaved off some parental uneasiness over sending kids to school without a lunch, the fact that the plan was mandatory and there was a limited variety of food offered had some SAIC students feeling restricted rather than at an advantage.
“[The Meal Plan] has required an extra step of three-times-daily planning in order to eat around a schedule that is not my own,” wrote Spring 2013 BFAW candidate Clare O’Conner in a letter she sent to Residence Life requesting the additional $1000 per semester fee to not be required. Instead, she suggested it be offered as an option available for those students who wished to opt in. Her main concern, and of other upperclassmen, was how unused funds would roll over from the fall semester into the Spring. And judging by the amount remaining in O’Conner’s ARTICash account, she realized there would be a substantial balance by the time she graduated.
Residence Life administrators opted for a mandatory meal plan because of research and conversations with students and parents, regarding students’ unhealthy eating habits. “What this information told us is that many students were struggling at SAIC because they were not eating well, were eating infrequently, and were eating food that was not going to keep them healthy,” explained Patrick Spence, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs. “As a result, we felt the meal plan needed to be part of the residence hall experience.”
In order to address concerns over the leftover balance, and because the new meal plan is in test mode, Residence Life has announced that for this year only, at the end of the spring semester, the money leftover in a student’s meal plan account will first go toward paying any outstanding balances he or she may have within their school account. Any money left over after that will then be refunded to the student.
“We never intended to have students with unused money,” said Spence. “More than half of the students had no money or just a little amount left over after the past fall semester. But for half of the students who did have money left, I definitely understand their concern.”
Throughout the Fall semester and Winter interim, Residence Life also reached out to meet with students, like O’Conner and her roommate Christina Seo, in order to discuss ways to improve service at three of the dining halls. O’Conner and Seo have both lived in the residence halls for three and a half years and would never think to live anywhere else. They expressed their fondness for the “city campus,” especially because of the endless options for organic and vegetarian food surrounding the dorms. They and others involved brought up complaints about the lack of variety Food for Thought has provided, especially in vegan and vegetarian options.
“There aren’t very many healthy choices for vegetarians like myself,” said freshman Duangchai Swani. “Last semester I was eating here regularly, but I think $1,000 is way too much for one semester.”
In order to figure out a budget, SAIC partnered with Food for Thought and mapped out a plan based on average weekly costs of meals and studies of how other art schools around the country were implementing a meal plan.
“Starting this spring, we will be providing more variety. Students in the past have had trouble figuring out what their options are,” Spence said. “There will be signs clarifying new gluten-free, organic, vegetarian and vegan options available that day.”
Other than more robust diet variations, more additions to the Neiman Center’s menu include sushi options to be available not only on Mondays, but Tuesday and Thursday as well, and a vegan California roll option will be included. Rice will be available daily, and new seasonal menu items will be added to the Stack and Flame section of the café.
The Columbus café will also be changing their menu. Items previously offered at Sonny’s café before it was replaced by Food for Thought — pork lo mein and thai red curry — will be brought back and be available throughout the week. Pad Thai will also be added to the menu.
Spence also added that beginning the first week of February, a Fresh Bar will be offered at the dining halls. It will include yogurt, granola and fruit in addition to a range of fresh and prepared salads available during lunch and dinner. The heating trays where fries, pizza and prepared hamburgers were being kept in the Neiman Center cafe will be moved towards the back, allowing for the new and healthier options to be highlighted and made more readily available.
“Just as we have an exercise facility in the residence hall and Resident Advisors who plan programs for the community and do rounds of the building to ensure safety,” said Spence, “we view this meal plan as part of the residence hall experience.”