Bee Wilson on wasteful Ivy League "meal plans"

Ivy League "meal plans" are a hideous waste of food and money

Pundits are always expelling breath pondering the question of whether British universities should become more like American ones. But in these discussions, at least one aspect of the Ivy League usually gets completely overlooked; and, as it happens, it is not one to be recommended: the dining experience.

When you enrol at an Ivy League university, your parents will be fleeced for as much as $20,000 a year to pay for the honour of you getting drunk at beer-keg parties in frat houses. And that's just the tuition fees. They will also be charged $4,000-5,000 per year for your box of a room and - and here's the killer blow - up to $4,000 more (at least in your first year) for your compulsory university "meal plan".

The details of these schemes vary from university to university, but at their worst, they combine the grotesque waste and consumerism of the free market with the loss of personal liberty entailed in a highly managed economy. Unlike dining out in America, which is generally much cheaper than in Britain (indeed, in some cases, too cheap), American college food is far more pricey than the average British university cafeteria, not least because, instead of paying only for what you eat, you pay a flat-rate, per-meal charge. What's more, the fewer meals you sign up for, the more expensive they are.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the minimum number of college meals a freshman can sign up for is nine a week or 288 a year, at a cost of $3,145, which works out at more than $10 a meal. At Yale, even graduate students are obliged to sign up for ten meals a week at $10 each. At Princeton, the minimum meal plan (six meals a week) works out at nearly $14 for each and every meal! Just think how many nice student dinners you could make yourself if those 14 dollars were in your own hands. The only way to make a college meal plan even halfway good value is to sign up for more meals.

At both Princeton and Penn, if you have between 14 and 21 meals a week, it works out at about $6 per meal. But this is still not cheap, and you would be condemned to eating bland, overcooked college food at least twice a day every day, feeling like an overprotected brat.

Harvard's website claims that the reason its meal plans are obligatory is "to ensure that you participate in every House activity on an equal footing as your peers". Yale's excuse is that "dining in distinctive residential halls" is one of the institution's "most important traditions". Penn boasts that "great minds meet over dinner". (Not over this dinner, they don't.)

But meal plans actually infantilise their rich clientele, or "customers", as the universities now refer to them. Once you are in the meal plan system you are offered all the culinary choice in the world - gluten-free, egg-free, kosher, even "brown bag" meals "to go" when you are too busy to sit down, and late-night "brain break" meals to help you study - everything except for good food.

Meal plans create hideous waste, of food as well as money. On the one hand, there are the students who mooch into lunch, having just woken up, and eat a single bowl of Froot Loops for their $10 lunch. There are anorexics who eat nothing but lettuce, a problem that got so bad at Princeton, it is said, that the catering staff started spraying protein on the salad bar.

But there are also feckless teenagers who take an "all you can eat" invitation at its word, grabbing three steaks, a load of soggy quesadillas, a wedge of vegan lasagne and a tower of waffles and cream for dinner, only to leave most of it on their plates, blithely chucking their parents' hard-won college fund down the garbage chute.