“Sometimes, it feels like Penn cares more about making money than the actual health of its students,” says Angelica Meliksetyan (C '24). That’s just one of many expressions of frustration since Penn’s February announcement that, starting with the Class of 2024, sophomores would be required to purchase a dining plan. For many, this new policy feels like an overstep that limits student freedom, not unlike the requirement for all sophomores to live on campus. But for Angelica, her Type 1 diabetes means that being forced to eat on a dining plan poses a threat to her health.
In the fall, sophomores will be able to choose from either two first–year dining plans or the “second–year 156” plan, which comes to about ten swipes and $18 Dining Dollars per week. The cost—$1,998 per semester—is staggering. It’s almost exactly what I had budgeted for myself this semester: $1,500 for the plan with only Dining Dollars and $500 to spend on groceries and other food off campus. The main difference? I can get a lot more food with the same amount of money.
Is the new $2,000 sophomore dining plan really livable? I was intent on finding out for myself. I ate the last of the perishable food in my fridge, packed up my pantry, and set out to see if I could live on the “second–year 156” plan for a week—without getting too hungry.
The Rules: ten swipes across seven days, $18 Dining Dollars to spend however I wanted, and $20 of what I called "social food money" that I could use off campus. What could go wrong?
On day one, I woke up hungry. I ventured out to 1920 Commons to use my first swipe of the week. I was nervous about finding enough things that I could eat: I have a gluten sensitivity and have been doing my best to keep my New Year’s resolution of minimizing my consumption of animal products. I was pleasantly surprised at what I was able to get: a quinoa bowl with warm apples, potatoes, fruit, and coffee.
Tanner Duve (C '24) has similarly been content with the options in the dining hall that fit his vegan diet. “So far, I've actually been happy with the dining halls. I feel like there's a lot of vegan options, even if they sometimes get repetitive.” I also really enjoyed a lot of the meals I was able to get my first few days: rice noodles with tofu and vegetables, a rice and broccoli stir fry, and on a sushi night, I was even able to get a whole tray of vegetable rolls.
But others, like Angelica, have food restrictions that aren’t adequately accommodated by Penn Dining. Because of her Type 1 diabetes, she has to be extremely conscientious of exactly how many carbs she’s eating in relation to her insulin injections. Bon Appétit doesn’t provide comprehensive nutrition facts on its items in dining halls—Angelica fears what might happen if she eats anything with more than a few simple ingredients. “Without nutrition facts, I have no idea how much insulin to do. If I do too much insulin, then my blood sugar goes low, and I can have a seizure. Or if I do too little, it goes really high—you can be hospitalized for that, which really puts me at risk.”
Similarly, Peter* is frustrated by the lack of available information about food preparation, especially because of some of his strict religious dietary restrictions. Peter follows a form of fasting during Lent derived from the Eastern Orthodox tradition where he eats only one meal per day and abstains from eating all animal products and forms of oil. “There are not a lot of choices, so I swipe through multiple times just to get the sides and fruit to meet my needs,” he says. As a first year without access to a kitchen, he doesn’t have much choice but to make do with what he finds in the dining halls. For Peter, fasting during Lent is supposed to create more time to focus on prayer. But being limited to the dining plan is distracting from his religious practice.
However, Bon Appétit does make significant efforts to work with a variety of other religious diets. Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons has strictly kosher kitchens, and it’s a favorite among Penn students both within the Jewish community and otherwise. In fact, it’s the main reason that Elyakim Suissa (C '22) chooses to remain on a dining plan as a junior. Elyakim has mostly been content with Penn’s dining options and appreciates the care of the staff at Falk. Bon Appétit also partners closely with both the Muslim Student Association and Hindu and Jain Association on campus to make sure that there are options that fit those particular diets.
Dan Connolly, Bon Appétit’s Registered Dietary Nutritionist for Penn Dining says that they try to use “descriptive menu nomenclature” so that students can best judge the content of what they’re eating. “The more that you let us know what you like and what you need, the better we can respond. And Dan's the frontline of response,” adds Barbara Lea–Kruger, director of communications and external Relations for Penn Business Services. “We don’t know what [students] need unless they tell us,” says Connolly. Right now, he's only working with about 100 students with special dietary needs.
Angelica says she did reach out to Bon Appétit and Penn Dining at the beginning of the semester with her concerns: “It was not helpful—they didn't tell me anything. They said that they don't provide nutritional facts and they can't really do anything about that.” Though her meal plan is subsidized by financial aid, if Angelica can’t eat in the dining halls without putting her health at a significant risk, thousands of dollars she could be using for other food still goes to waste. Angelica has also tried to get in touch with Student Disabilities Services to see if she could get some sort of stipend to buy outside food from the grocery store—they didn’t get back to her.
Instead, she found herself making do with what she could get in the dining halls: “There was a point when I didn’t eat anything but salad for a week.” After that, Angelica became sick. Fortunately, Angelica’s family lives in the Philadelphia area, and has been able to bring her food, but it’s still an unnecessary burden for her, especially as a first–generation, low–income student. “To think that I have to go through all of this again next year—it’s kind of ridiculous.”
On day three of my week on the “second–year 156” plan, I realized I needed to start budgeting my swipes—I had only five left with five days of meals to cover. It was time to use my Dining Dollars. While usually I grab lunch at Houston Hall once or twice per week with my Dining Dollars, I wasn’t going to waste $10 of my precious Dining Dollars on a single meal. I ventured to Gourmet Grocer to see what ingredients I could get to fashion into some supplementary dishes.
I went up and down the aisles for a while, trying to figure out what I could put together as a meal with limited options and limited funds. I settled on a gluten–free linguine and a bag of frozen vegetables. I also grabbed a bag of lentils for protein. Finally, I went for a box of KIND bars, which I hoped would make for a good snack to sustain me between meals. It came to $18.82—there went all of my Dining Dollars.
I put together a pasta dish with the frozen vegetables and linguine, cheating a bit by using olive oil, parsley, and salt from my pantry. I vaguely felt like I was on a low–budget version of Chopped or Guy’s Grocery Games. Regardless, what I put together would have gotten me eliminated in the first round, but at least it cured my hunger.
One of Penn’s major arguments for extending the dining requirement to sophomores is the lack of kitchens in much of on–campus housing. But what about those sophomores who will have on–campus kitchens—and will be paying a premium for it on their housing bill? Some prefer to prepare their own food independently, but being forced onto a dining plan seems to devalue the kitchen and their ability to make that decision for themselves. There’s also a mental burden of constantly calculating how many swipes you have left and how to allocate them.
The finite nature of the dining plan makes it feel limiting, even stressful. But that restrictive nature can be even more anxiety inducing if you have a history of disordered eating.
Peter has struggled with disordered thoughts around eating throughout his life, mostly surrounding anxious thoughts around meals. The dining plan has only exacerbated those thoughts. Peter also has a lot of anxiety about the food he wastes by only eating very select items from the dining hall. The lack of control is overwhelming.
“My eating disorder is either volleying between the extremes of absolute control or complete lack of it. And it's extremely hard to keep control over the food with all these restrictions on the amount [of food] that you can get. Portions are just really aggravating,” he explains. Peter walks into the dining hall every day having looked ahead at the menu and planned what he will feel comfortable eating. “I'll go through all those things and make a plan—then sometimes it won't even be there.”
Before coming to campus for the spring, Peter tried to get out of the dining plan knowing that its restrictive nature wasn’t going to be healthy for him. But it didn’t work out. Between sticking to his fasting diet for Lent and managing his food anxiety, the dining plan has taken a major toll on his mental health.
“When you're anxious about this stuff, when [it's] just constantly on your mind, it takes away a lot from the focus that's necessary in doing schoolwork. I really have been struggling with my classes because of this,” says Peter.
On the other hand, Adam Rose (C '22) has chosen to remain on the dining plan as an upperclassman with both swipes and dining dollars, even though he lives off campus this semester. He likes the ease of being able to stop into a dining hall, especially when he has a lot of class hours and doesn’t have the capacity to cook. His dining plan also isn’t subsidized by financial aid, but he feels it’s worth it—apart from the amount of planning that goes into using meal swipes.
“That's actually, the greatest fault of Penn Dining—in order to get the most value, you really have to plan ahead on how you're going to use the dining options. Not everyone wants to do that … It doesn’t have to be this way.”
For dinner on day three, I ended up getting takeout from Hummus Grill with a friend. I went for the economical choice, a hummus platter, which took half of the social money I could use for the week. I ate half of it and saved the rest to repurpose for another meal. The looming thought of my dwindling swipes made me extra conscious of everything I was eating. Meal plans are supposed to make eating effortless—to reduce student stress. Instead, it was exhausting, occupying an inordinate amount of my headspace.
On the Penn Dining Bon Appétit website, you can find lots of descriptions of different lifestyles and healthy eating choices: the benefits of Intermittent Fasting! Whole 30! Intuitive Eating! They’re shiny, trendy, and utterly impossible lifestyle choices to make if you’re on a dining plan. Niche fad diets aren’t accommodated in actuality. “Personalized Wellness Plates” aren’t exactly feasible with the limited options in dining halls, especially for a busy college student. The messaging Penn Dining is preaching is contradictory to its practice, to say the least.
On day four, I met Macy*, who works in one of the dining halls at Penn. I had stopped in to grab lunch quickly before an afternoon full of studying. When I told her I would be paying for my swipe using Dining Dollars, she waved me through. I tried to scan my PennCard, but instead she shook her head and again gestured for me to go ahead. When I stopped in that evening for dinner, Macy waved me through again. But this time, she pulled me aside in response to my confusion and whispered, “When I’m working, you don’t need to worry about paying.”
Macy went on to explain that she feels a certain duty to help out students: “There are lots of students who come here who don’t have a meal plan. So I help them out. Students should not be hungry.” When she sees a student paying with Dining Dollars instead of a meal swipe, she discreetly lets them go through. She’s aware that the $17 charge for a meal isn’t really equivalent to the amount of food they’re getting. “I feel like we should be willing to help our students. If it were our children away, we would want to help them.”
Food insecurity is another central rationale Penn gave for mandating the second–year dining plan. But for Angelica, the dining plan actually exacerbates her food insecurity. Her financial aid covers half of her meal plan, but she’s still paying for something she’s hardly able to use—and paying out of pocket for groceries. “I don't really know if I can afford it—not for another whole year.”
On the morning of day five, I was out of KIND bars and ate lentils and leftover pasta for breakfast. With three swipes left, I knew I needed to make the most of what was to come. I ended up spending four dollars on coffee at Wawa and grabbing three protein bars to get me through the next three days. All of my extra spending money for the week was gone. I stopped at Commons for lunch, but only ate soup and the main noodle dish—I also picked up two garden salads, but saved them to be repurposed for later meals.
I was suddenly missing the ease that came with using my swipes at the beginning of the week. For dinner I ate the rest of my pasta over a salad, an idea I had actually gotten from Angelica, who had told me she had been swiping in mostly to get salads to repurpose into wraps. It ended up elevating the two–day–old pasta pretty well.
On the morning of day six, I used one of my last two swipes for breakfast. I was able to get a pretty filling tofu scramble, grits, and fruit. I saved the breakfast potatoes and an extra banana I had sneakily slipped into my bag for later. One of my protein bars held me over for lunch, and after the success of my leftover pasta over salad, I took the rest of my lentils and breakfast potatoes, reheated them, and put them over the salad for dinner. The result was surprisingly delicious and filling.
Day seven brought the joyful anticipation of being able to return to my normal eating habits, but also a certain appreciation for the dining hall and a strange longing for being a first year, when my life seemingly revolved around dining halls. I happily ate my banana and protein bar for breakfast and then headed to Commons for lunch. I was reminded of something Macy had said to me earlier in the week: “You all are away from home, so you’re like our family.” There is something oddly homey about the dining halls, even if this semester, we haven’t really been able to eat in them.
Elyakim speaks fondly of the spirit in the dining halls, even during COVID–19: “The Falk Dining [Commons] workers all know your name.” There is a certain joy in the rapport between students and the dining workers that provides an element of comfort and constancy in the chaos of college life. Elyakim hopes that current first years can look forward to having some semblance of the experience of eating in dining halls, which he found to be an important experience for getting closer with friends during both his first and second years before the pandemic.
Despite the clearly overpriced cost of the dining plan, part of what we are paying for is not the simple transaction of food, but also the salaries of those who provide it. “I would like to think that by participating in the dining plan ... we're also contributing to these individuals and giving them a job,” says Adam. In fact, that’s the main reason Macy will sometimes let students come into the dining hall without paying. “You students pay too much, so I let you go through—because you all coming here pays our salaries.”
When campus was closed, around 140 Bon Appétit employees were laid off. There was outcry from the entire University community. But if students aren’t patronizing dining halls when campus is open, we’re effectively depriving them of business. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of students to make sure that dining staff are paid, but if the University isn’t giving them fair treatment, we may as well show our support by going to the dining halls and being friendly, kind, and appreciative.
The first–year dining plan is a certain rite of passage: We come together around the repetition of Commons' meals, Hill's soft serve, and Gourmet Grocer's overpriced snacks. But like so many things for the Class of 2024, dining halls have not been a central part of their first–year experience in the way that they have been for past generations of Penn students. This year, dining halls have become way stations for transactionally picking up meals to eat alone in dorm rooms. But with Penn’s new sophomore dining plan, maybe it will be a much–needed community–building element of the second–year experience in a fall semester promising some semblance of normalcy post–pandemic.
So, is the “second–year 156” plan livable on its own? Yes—if you’re willing to eat lentils and leftover pasta for most of the meals that you can’t get in the dining hall. If you’re thrifty and economical, you can get away with the $2,000–per–semester plan—as long as you know how to stretch your meals the right way and have a little extra spending money.
Then again, we’re living in one of the most diverse and eclectic food cities in the United States. But what’s the point of that urban setting, its food niches, its variety, if students—especially those who can’t afford to spend extra money outside of the dining plan—have to exclusively live on meal swipes and making do with whatever they can pick up cheaply at Gourmet Grocer, Wawa, and food carts to supplement meals? Food and eating are incredibly personal parts of our lives. Is it really okay for the University to prescribe a lifestyle onto its students? College life is supposed to be about freedom and autonomy. The dining plans—at least the first–year and now second–year dining plans—are the opposite of that.
*indicates name changed for anonymity
Student Health Service — 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of eating disorders, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. SHS also has two registered dietitians available for consultation.