Why Caltech’s Mandatory Meal Plans Need to Change

“The meal plan should not be required in our housing contract. It is a financial burden—eating out and buying groceries would be cheaper.” – A Freshman Skurve

A Caltech student’s bursar bill is riddled with large numbers. $19,493 for one term’s tuition. $795 for “Student Fees”. $60 dollars for parking per month. $3,605 for one term’s housing. And last but not least, $2,597 for the “Anytime plan”.

That is $7,791 per year. And next year, it will be $8,259–a whole 6 percent increase.

93 percent of Caltech undergrads (as of 2022) lived on campus. Of those roughly 900 students, all were automatically placed on the “Anytime plan”. Rightly so, many students have been discontent with the meal plan and its mandatory nature. Consequently, we’ve reached out to multiple students who have attempted to opt out of the meal plans and Caltech administrators on this issue.

One student said, “I am financially responsible for paying a portion of my education and it’s not feasible for me to pay for the meal plan, and still have to pay for groceries outside of that to accommodate my dietary restrictions.”

Upon meeting with the CDS administrators, these students were directed toward their special meals program. The students say it appeared that opting out was “not an option”.

Another student said that they had met with Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS) staff, who promised them that they would be opted out of the dining plan. Nevertheless, they were still charged for the meal plan, as the decision wasn’t in the purview of CASS and they didn’t fit the requirements to be exempt from the mandate.

When questioned, Jaime Reyes, the Director of Dining Services explained CDS’ reasoning behind the “Anytime plan” is “to make sure we had food available for you guys.” In the food desert that is Pasadena, the plan enables Caltech facilities to be open at most times of the day (e.g., Red Door is open from 7 am to 2 am). They also pointed to the fact that having an unlimited pre-paid plan helps prevent food-insecure individuals from going unfed.

While these are valid points, we inquired about whether the lack of flexibility and diversity in the plan could be detrimental to students. Mr. Reyes explained that “the FLEX plan was added to give people flexibility” and it has been priced at 90% of the “Anytime plan”.

Maria Katsas, the Executive Director of Student Auxiliary Services (SAS), said, “if there are students with certain needs–whether it’s dietary, restrictions, religious, or whatever it is–we are able to buy them and make them separate meals”. On exemptions, they clarified that on the rare occasion “[students] have really serious dietary restrictions, [they] work with the CASS office and the deans” to process exemptions; in her 19 years at Caltech, she recalled only “a couple of times” the exemption has been provided.

Under a contemporary understanding of consent, a mandatory plan undermines students’ agency and is simply unethical. In a system in which most students have little choice but to live in Caltech housing, a mandatory plan robs the students of their ability to choose where they will eat, what they will eat, and how much they’ll spend on it. The illusion of choice provided by a $7,434-a-year “FLEX plan” does not have tangible benefits to students either. In fact, discounting the dollar yogurts and bagels in open kitchen, the “FLEX plan” prices house dinners at about $38 per dinner. It surely would be cheaper for any students to be on no plan than the “FLEX plan”–that is unless they ate about thirty Greek yogurts a day from open kitchen.

This problem is not unique to Caltech. In 2018, AB 1961 was introduced in California to prohibit mandatory meal plans and make meal plan pricing more transparent in response to protests from CSU students, but the signed legislation omitted the clause that would have prohibited meal plan mandates. Nevertheless, we can investigate how peer institutions dealt with their meal plan headaches.

In UCs, there is a culture of students living in apartments, avoiding the meal plan altogether. Had Caltech not discontinued non-market non-dormitory houses, this could be a solution for those with dietary restrictions or even the lay-upperclassmen who are tired of having turkey-bacon-avocado sandwiches every day. Currently, the complications in procuring off-campus housing and the exorbitant LA-county prices leave off-campus living off-limits to many.

The solution may actually be much more straightforward. Our peer institutions such as MIT and CalArts have significantly more affordable base meal plans at $2,150-a-year and $2,028-a-year respectively. A base meal plan to cover just the non-negotiables (i.e., house dinners and open kitchen) would enable students to have incredible flexibility in dining with little cost. In an institute defined by its honor code where students are trusted to work with rockets, million-dollar lasers, and Class-A drugs, it seems reasonable to trust them to not take advantage of Caltech’s meal plans and to feed themselves as they see fit.

The administrators we’ve talked to shared the same optimistic sentiments. Good-faith collaboration augurs well for the future of Caltech. Hopefully, with your support from the greater Caltech community, we can have a better meal plan and a better Caltech in the near future.