U of L students protest mandatory meal plan

LOUISVILLE — As a visual arts major at the University of Louisville, sophomore Morgan Puckett spends more on paint and supplies each semester than she does on food.

But that would have to change under a meal plan the university says it's going to require all full-time undergraduate students on the Belknap campus — including commuters like Puckett — to purchase starting next fall.

It would cost $250 per semester for commuter students and more than $1,000 for some students who live on campus.

"I could eat for a whole week on what they want me to spend in a day," said Puckett, noting that she had planned to eat cheap meals such as macaroni and cheese to ensure she had enough money to cover her tuition, supplies, rent and gas next year.

Puckett was one of about 200 students who attended a forum Oct. 20 that the university's Student Government Association organized in response to student outcry over the new mandatory plan.

The decision to change the meal plan was made this summer and is part of a 10-year deal with the university's new food service provider, Sodexo.

In exchange for instituting mandatory meal plans, Sodexo will invest $11 million in improving and expanding campus dining services.

U of L officials have not said they would be willing to reconsider the deal.

University officials and student government leaders say that the new plan is in response to long-standing student complaints about food quality, selection and availability on campus. The portion of the money raised through the plans will pay for improving, expanding and renovating the university's food service.

But many students who attended yesterday's forum expressed concern that the decision was made without enough student input, especially from the university's sizable commuter population. About 80 percent of U of L undergraduates live off campus, university officials said.

A number who attended yesterday's forum said they don't eat on campus, so being forced to buy a meal plan only adds to their school costs.

Kelly Thayer, a biology major who pays for her education with loans and part-time work, said when she wants something to eat, she goes to her apartment near campus.

"I can make a sandwich at home for less than a dollar," she said. "Why should we have to pay for something we aren't going to use and we don't need?"

Her mother, Sharon Seelye, who also attended the forum, said while $500 a year seems like a small amount, it's just one more increased cost atop many others.

"This is an economic hardship," she said. "It should be a choice."

Currently, all U of L students who live on campus and do not have kitchens in their units are required to have meal plans.

Commuters have the option to buy meal plans.

The change will increase the number of students who have meal plans from about 2,200 to almost 11,000, university officials estimated yesterday.

U of L officials say expanding dining services ties into the university's goal of increasing residential life on campus, which in turn has been tied to improved academic performance and graduation rates.

Dining options have already expanded this year, and other options will be added over the next several months and years.

The mandatory plans would cost $1,165 per semester for students living in residence halls without kitchens and $745 per semester for students in residence halls with kitchens. Commuter students would pay $250 per semester.

Students would be required to purchase meal plans each semester.

Any money left on the meal plans at the end of the fall semester would roll over into the spring meal plans.

But if there are any balances at the end of the spring semester, the money would be absorbed into the food service. There would be no refunds.

Once the plan takes effect, U of L would be the only public university in the state to require commuter students to purchase meal plans.

The plans are optional for such students at Kentucky's other public universities.

Rudy Spencer, president of the student government group, said that while the contract with Sodexo already is in place, student input will be considered as the university decides what exemptions may be allowed.

Exemptions are currently allowed for resident students based on religious or medical concerns, and those exemptions will be extended to commuter students under the new program.