Although the dining halls and cafés on campus differ in what they offer, they are all owned and operated by Campus Auxiliary Services.
Regardless of where we decide to spend our meal plan money, it all goes toward the same organization. The dining halls do make some effort to garner feedback from students, but since CAS’s monopoly over student meal plans requires students to spend their money on CAS-provided food, there can be no real competition between the dining locations, giving them little incentive to try and impress our taste buds or control costs.
Yes, if we do tire of campus fare we can spend our meal plan dollars at the Big Tree Inn up on Main Street; though delicious, the food there is expensive, and one can only use a meal plan Monday through Wednesday. Similarly, if we want to eat something that tastes like it comes from the outside world, Taco Bell in Mary Jemison is generally sufficient but incredibly unhealthy. CAS should choose an eating establishment downtown – at least one, for the time being, as an experiment – and incorporate it into the meal plan to give students an option to eat affordable, regular food off campus.
It should be pointed out that CAS is a nonprofit organization, designed to serve the students and improve college life, so occasionally losing some revenue to a private establishment might not really be such a bad thing if it means that students can eat better and more conveniently. The organization does need our meal plan money to be able to purchase the best possible ingredients and give us a wide range of dining options, but if given some marketplace competition, the dining halls might be encouraged to make a more active effort to win students over, both in pricing and food quality.
Even if the revenue CAS brings in from on-campus eating options is reduced by adding an off-campus option, it might not be by as much as one might think. Convenience and proximity are pretty compelling means of drawing in students, especially ones who have lots of work and little time between classes. Regardless of which side of the Letchworth versus Red Jacket battle people might fall on, they will generally be found eating in the dining hall they were closest to when they got hungry, in the company of those living in the residence halls surrounding the building.
In all likelihood, adding Main Street vendors to the meal plan would mainly just mean that more meals and snacks would be purchased with swipes than cash. The weekend Mama Mia’s or University Hots run on the way home from evening activities would no longer cut into the few bills that might exist in the wallets of poor college students, and business would probably boom as we are generally not as stingy with our money when it is on a prepaid card. Bringing the meal plan to Main Street would improve the student dining experience, give an economic boost to local business and improve college-village relations.