By Molly Meisels
On November 27th, the last day of classes before Thanksgiving break, Dean Chaim Nissel, Yeshiva University’s Dean of Students, sent ystuds and sstuds to the undergraduate student body announcing a retraction of the 2019 – 2020 “YU Dining Club” meal plan system.
As reported by the YU Commentator, the new meal plan was initiated due to student complaints about problems with the previous meal plan model, which left many students with non-refundable cafeteria money remaining in their accounts at the end of the semester. This, coupled with student complaints about high cafeteria prices, urged the administration to lower cafeteria prices, but take a “membership fee” from students to cover the expenses of running the cafeterias.
However, within weeks of the start of the Fall 2019 semester, students realized that their funds were dwindling faster than usual, prompting student concern and outrage about the new plan, with some students claiming that it reflected unethical practices from YU.
After student advocates, led by Mili Chizhik, SCW ‘22, sent petitions, quotes, and emails to Dean Nissel and Randy Apfelbaum, YU Chief Facilities and Administrative Officer, YU’s administration agreed to host info sessions on the Beren and Wilf campuses on November 20th to explain their reasonings for changing the meal plan with students.
On November 26th, focus groups were held on the Beren and Wilf campuses to explore the future of the meal plan. Akiva Poppers, SSSB ‘22, a student who worked on mathematical calculations which outlined the kinks with the “YU Dining Club” model, shared screenshots from the Beren and Wilf focus groups with the YU Observer. On the Wilf Campus, Jonathan Schwab, Director of University Housing and Residence Life, sent a message to a Slack channel, asking students to respond to a “quick poll.”
Schwab’s poll asked if students would love, like, dislike, hate, or express confusion towards the following possible meal plan changes for after Thanksgiving break: “All membership fees ($675) from the beginning of the semester were given back to you as caf money; All discounts in the caf would stop; The discounts on all previous purchases would be retroactively applied to everything you bought (you pay an additional 40% of whatever you’ve spent so far).”
At the Beren focus group, run by Rachel Kraut, Beren Director of University Housing and Residence Life, Apfelbaum, and Dean Nissel, students were given an informative sheet with the same changes, with the addition that the reversal of the “YU Dining Club” plan would be effective as of December 2nd. On her notes during the focus group, Chizhik wrote that YU will “pretend everything that happened up until now didn’t happen” and that they will “scratch the whole new system.”
Erica Sultan, SCW ‘22, another student in the Beren focus group, said that Kraut told students that don’t need to have three meals a day in the cafeterias and that “on the plan it’s not necessarily expected for you [students] to eat three meals a day in the caf.” According to Sultan, Dean Nissel recommended that students buy breakfast foods from Trader Joe’s to limit their cafeteria expenses. At the session, Sultan told Kraut, Apfelbaum, and Dean Nissel: “[I told them] that was… unacceptable towards people like me and my friends who are out-of-towners…[our families] can’t get extra money. We barely have enough money for the $3,000 at the caf and now they’re telling us to go spend more because that money is not a sufficient amount?”
The information presented to the focus groups was reflected in the email sent out to the student body by Dean Nissel, which stated: “Thank you for your feedback. We understand that the current meal plan is not working for many students and have decided to revert to the debit system we had in place last year, with the full value of a student’s dining card available for direct purchases in the cafeterias and caf-stores. This change will be retroactive to the beginning of the current semester and both the membership fee and the discounts received, will be reversed.” After outlining the particular changes mentioned during the focus groups, Dean Nissel continued: “This is a good time to re-evaluate your plan and make sure it is meeting your needs. If after this change you have a balance of $250 or less, you may be on too low of a plan for your eating habits; if you have $1000 or more, you may be on too high of a plan. In either case, you can always add money to your balance at onecard.yu.edu or switch your plan for next semester.”
Poppers expressed that he is pleased with the new changes and the administration’s willingness to change the plan. “The ability of students to successfully protest the caf plan establishes both a monetary and ethical victory[…] I can ensure everyone who is a caf member that this new plan works out mathematically, as the lost value is recouped in all cases, and in some cases students get additional caf money,” he said.
Students conveyed mixed thoughts about the complete reversal of the new plan. Dahlia Laury, SSSB ‘20, claimed that the changes in the meal plan have not impacted her. “I didn’t notice a difference in my eating habits, or in the amount of food I was purchasing when they changed it in the first place!” she wrote. Sultan shared, “I think the new change, which is going back to the old plan, is a reactionary approach to the mess that they made. I don’t think it’s the best. I think it’s the best in the situation where students have $0 in their account and are going hungry. I even know of cases of students getting sick because they can’t even go eat at their caf…I can only hope that they stop making bad decisions and reactive decisions, and rather they make proactive decisions for their students, for us, their student body.”
On the other hand, Herschel Siegel, YC ‘21, does not believe that the complete retraction of the plan is sufficient. “What bothers me is that YU is refunding our original amounts, while also charging us for our discounts… In the business world, if someone makes a bad investment, they can’t just ‘take back their investment.’ YU made a bad executive decision and honestly, they should have to take the consequences of such a decision. Recharging the students for the ‘40% discount’ is equivalent to a stock broker deciding to go back in time; not only ridiculous, but also absurd,” he said.
Chizhik, who has been in direct contact with Apfelbaum and Dean Nissel since the start of the semester, told the YU Observer, “I think that this is the best option that they have given us so far. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised, but I’m happy that they’re changing it because that’s what they should be doing. Students shouldn’t have to suffer…[because of] such a simple mistake. On their part, they could have checked it out financially. But for now, we should be happy…I’m happy students will now hopefully have a burden leave from their shoulders. I know that I have. I literally ate a normal meal for the first time today, which was an achievement.”
Photo: Screenshot of notes from the Beren Campus focus group