Meal plan costs rise amid wage reform

As meal plan rates continue to increase each academic year and campus food becomes more expensive, Campus Auxiliary Services’ board of directors has found the need to address shifting demand from students. Geneseo’s residential population size, minimum wage increases and healthcare reform are among several factors that affect meal plan prices. CAS oversees operations at all of Geneseo’s dining establishments and also provides numerous other services for the campus. CAS Executive Director Mark Scott is largely in charge of the decisions that factor into meal plan costs, though he said that costs are ultimately out of his control.

“One of the big ones that just went up that’s outside of our control is minimum wage,” Scott said. “This alone added about $100,000 to the cost of operating the company.”

Healthcare reform has also impacted meal plan prices. According to Scott, an employee who works 30 hours or more is now considered full-time and is owed benefits. Because Geneseo is located in a rural area, there is frequently a labor shortage, leading some part-time workers to work enough to qualify for healthcare.

As far as individual food items go, “Once we’ve gotten the product in the door, there are inflationary increases on the cost,” Scott said. “We have some guidelines and we can’t go too far above or below what the market averages are.”

Rising meal plans prices and CAS food in general generate no shortage of complaints among students. “Prices are ridiculous,” junior Tal Aloni said. “I can get a better quality meal in New York City for less money.”

Sophomore Ryan Falk noticed the price increase from last year. “It’s making me feel cash-strapped and portions are small,” he said.

Scott explained that he sees value in maintaining portion control on campus dining halls. “Portion control is important to the food business in general,” Scott said. “I’m the first one to say that portion control is something where we need to do a better job because if we don’t, the budgeted food cost that we’ve prescribed for the year won’t be met.”

Food options have also changed in several campus dining establishments, including Fusion Market and Mary Jemison Dining Hall.

“I really want noodle bowls. I will pay more for that,” sophomore Victoria Chin said. Chin added that “the salad in MJ is not as good and now it costs more.”

According to a previous Lamron article, during the 2013–2014 academic year, residential students were required to purchase a meal plan ranging in price from $1,854–$2,298 per semester. The 2015–2016 rate has increased to $1,996–$2,473.

Scott said that on average, meal plan prices have increased 3 percent per year.

After going through a bids process, Geneseo gives the majority of its business to just one company—a group-purchasing organization called Provista, a partner of VHA Inc.—in what is called a “sole-source” operation. The GPO then orders products for Geneseo, removing overhead costs and extra warehouses. According to Scott, meal plan prices could rise up to 10 percent per year if not for this system, or 5 to 6 percent if CAS allowed for some “menu engineering.”

All 64 SUNY schools utilize an auxiliary service corporation like CAS, which self-operates rather than contracting its services out. Though this means that Geneseo does not have a major national food company to pay, internal costs still take up a sizable chunk of revenues.

Salaries represent one major drain on CAS profits. “We certainly want to keep pace with the market in terms of being able to attract employees. I can tell you right now, we’re kind of losing that race,” Scott said. “We’re almost at a crisis level in terms of being able to attract employees and pay employees what the rest of the market is doing.”

Scott cited recent losses of employees to Boards of Cooperative Educational Services as well as Colgate University.

“I’ve lost six managers to BOCES in the last five years because I can’t compete with the retirement plans and I can’t compete with the salaries or the work week or the work year, for that matter,” he said. “We’re behind, fairly significantly, but … keeping [salaries] down is a big part of what helps us maintain the competitive position that the school has for cost of attendance.”

Scott determines the salaries of those below him while the board of directors determines Scott’s salary. According to public domain tax returns posted on CitizenAudit.org, Scott made nearly $175,000 in 2014.

“We’re in the service business, so we’re competing against not just what we have here in Geneseo or just colleges, we’re competing with hospitals and schools,” Scott said. “It’s a balancing act for us … I hope it will get better but things like minimum wage increases and pulls by the government don’t help. They really don’t.”

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