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Bad Mood Food: Is the dining hall scamming students?

Stephanie Kozofsky grabbed a quick after-class dinner in Café 101 last week. She put her dinner—a to-go bowl of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and a small bottle of milk—on the checkout counter, along with her credit card. In an instant, $4.34 was transferred from her bank account and credited to the University’s food service provider, Chartwells. Grabbing her receipt, she lamented, “For this price I could have bought a whole box of cereal.”

It’s a complaint that has been echoed through the years by many; accusations of over-priced meal options at the school’s dining hall are thrown about on an almost daily basis, and they’re certainly not without merit.

Chartwells, however, suggests that their prices are competitive with local options. Tyrone Ellen, director of dining services at Chartwells, explained how prices are determined: “We execute a bench marking exercise once a semester; where we select eateries that are local to the university, and some of its affiliated flex-partners to evaluate fair pricing. We also compare the data collected from other universities in Lower Manhattan and benchmark against NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Service).”

The process sounds fair enough, but there seems to be an error in calculations. The fact of the matter is that the pricing of meal options at the dining hall are certainly not competitive with our surroundings. With a semester’s worth of knowledge of the surrounding area, almost any savvy University student would be able to replicate almost any Chartwells meal for a fraction of the price.

In a survey of surrounding restaurants and stores, including Rossella’s Pizzeria, Wanted: Pizza Rotisserie and Shakes (known colloquially as “the $1 pizza place”), Cafe Tomato and Duane Reade, The Pace Press found that Chartwell’s prices are at times fair, at other times grossly over-priced, but rarely ever a bargain.

Some of the most egregious examples: A salad from Chartwells, priced at approximately $8, versus Cafe Tomato’s salad, priced at $4.95. Chartwells’ calzones, at $7.49, don’t compete with Wanted’s 3.99 versions. Smaller infractions: A slice of cheese pizza from Chartwells will run you an extra $1 than it would on Fulton St., and the same goes for a pre-packaged bowl of fruit—Chartwells’ version is an extra $1.10 over Duane Reade’s list price.

Where students see savings is in Chartwell’s pasta bowls, who’s $5.59 list price easily beats Rossella’s $9.95 list price.
While our sampling of price differences isn’t comprehensive, it does show a wide range in erratic price differences. And while the prices are listed, many students often complain of being over-charged—going as far as calling out specific names of Chartwells staffers to avoid while paying for food. Certainly over time, the extra dollars add up, and money that could have been used in any number of different ways, like for books or necessary supplies, goes to waste.

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