On Tuesday, March 31, Vice President for Student Development and Dean of Students Brad Voyles sent out an email with the subject line “Mandatory Meal Plans.” His email, the validation of months of whispered rumors, announced a new mandatory meal plan system that will be implemented beginning in the 2015-2016 school year.
On-campus students have long been automatically billed for a full meal plan, a part of paying full room and board, but students living in the apartments or in off-campus houses have been allowed to shop and cook for themselves (with the option of purchasing a full or partial meal plan). Starting next fall, even students living in the apartments or “off-campus” will be automatically billed with some type of meal plan according to their housing designation. Off-campus students, with the exception of student teachers, must purchase at least a Tier 1 meal plan, which includes 48 meals for $426 a semester. Students living in the apartments or Covenant-owned houses must purchase at least a Tier 2 meal plan, consisting of 60 meals (plus 20 Blink bucks) at $545 a semester.
In his email, Voyles cited several reasons for the decision, including healthy food choices, being able to provide a guaranteed head count to Chartwells, and the “opportunity to feel connected to classmates who no longer live on campus.” Voyles’ email mentioned consulting certain student leaders and the parents’ council and that though some of these groups expressed “concerns about cost, frustration about making it a requirement, and perception of intent,” once considered, the Covenant administration believes that “the benefits outweigh these concerns going forward.”
The reaction of the student body, however, indicates that many people do not believe the benefits outweigh their concerns. While some hoped the email might be an early April Fools joke, within hours of Dean Voyles’ email, a change.org petition protesting the mandatory meal plan had been shared dozens of times via Facebook, email, text message, and even Yik Yak, garnering hundreds of signatures from students, parents, and alumni overnight. Wednesday morning classes buzzed with discussion of the meal plan announcement, to the surprise of many staff and faculty members, who learned about the decision for the first time when their students brought it up.
Comments left on the petition page revealed students’ discontentment with the decision and a variety of reasons for the negative response. Michael Fuller commented, “Making meal plans required for everyone severely limits the off-campus student’s ability to function as an independent and responsible adult.” Josh Fikkert complained that Voyles’ email was dismissive of legitimate concerns, saying,“This new policy was accompanied by an announcement that was nothing short of condescending.” Fikkert finished his comment by touching on the frustration of many student leaders that while they had been consulted, many had responded negatively to the plan, while Dean Voyles’ email seemed to imply their unanimous support.
Conversely, sophomore Morgan Opgenorth says that she is upset over the reaction of the student body. “While I think the mandatory meal plan has a few legitimate issues for off-campus students, I also am overwhelmingly disappointed with Covenant’s reaction to it,” she said. “The administration, our brothers and sisters in Christ, put countless time and effort into this decision with more information and a wider perspective than any single student.” More importantly, she would like students to consider bigger injustices than mandatory meal plans. “We are quick to petition for ourselves, but we are so terribly apathetic when it comes to petitioning to help others.”
Dean Voyles has openly communicated with students to address concerns and answer questions, which included a discussion on Thursday. The decision was made with the good of students in mind, and according to Voyles, came about partly through negotiations with Chartwells and partly through discussion with off-campus students last semester in an open forum.
“The feeling in the room was that living off-campus is hard.” Voyles said. “Cooking is hard and takes time, people talk about missing campus, missing community, and concerns about how we can build community. We heard this theme surrounding food, meals, community, and disconnection from campus.” Several off-campus students who attended the forum last fall, however, dubbed the meeting ineffective and without a helpful conclusion. The mandatory meal plan is not what they hoped for.
Not lost on students is the financial cost of the meal plan. When Isabel Kulp, a rising Senior who currently lives in the apartments, brought up the matter of the significantly greater expense of a meal plan versus students cooking for themselves, Dean Voyles responded by saying, “That’s where the cost of trying to have the relationship with Chartwells comes in. … I can’t disagree with you, but there’s a reason why it costs more.” That cost, however justified, is a major student concern, and one repeated often in comments on the change.org petition site. Allison Vaught summed it up by saying, “Attending Covenant is an expensive sacrifice…”
“Fostering community” seems to many students an especially insufficient reason for forcing unwanted meal plans. Charlotte Huber, who will be living in the apartments as a senior next year agrees. “Community is important, but it can and is made outside of the Great Hall,” she said. “Many students move off campus because they are settled in their community...Living off campus is not for everyone, but for those who have that desire and that choice, I think they should be able to choose their own meal plans.”
Current student body president, Harris Stevens, affirmed the validity of the petition, saying, “I think it has been a great way for the student body to clearly communicate their desires, and I believe it has been recognized.” Harris continued, “I think the petition has been a good form of communication.” Dean Voyles said Thursday that though “the decision has been made, it was done with the understanding that feedback would be received.” Voyles intends to share the feedback, including student response, with the senior administration who will process it and respond to the student body.
Update 4/9/2015 16:00 EST PM: Yesterday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. an email was sent to the student body by Dean Brad Voyles repealing the mandatory meal plan for the 2015-2016 school year. Dean Voyles thanked students for voicing their concerns and apologized for the late timing of the announcement saying: “Operating with the goal of announcing prior to housing sign-up, I underestimated the necessary lead time for an announcement of this magnitude and for this I ask your forgiveness.”
Students excitedly shared the news on social media, however many are still concerned about the reevaluation that will take place for the 2016-2017 school year for students living in Covenant provided housing.
Voyles expressed: “While we still believe there is real value in having meal plans for all students, the student feedback has been helpful in continuing to weigh the benefits and costs. We would still encourage off campus students to pursue one of the voluntary meal plans for these benefits in the year ahead.”