Cafeteria food and the costs of Flexi are hardly new conversation topics among students; in the past 12 years, the Foghorn has run 30 pieces related to Bon Appetit. But, the Hilltop has recently seen the mobilization of a new movement advocating for changes to the state of meal services at USF. Students are calling on the University and Bon Appetit to adjust the current meal plans available to students in terms of price, quality, and accessibility.
These concerns were addressed at a Feb. 15 Senate Town Hall, where USF representative Garret O’Doherty and Bon Appetit representative Crystal Chun Wong opened the floor to students with questions about the state of meal services.
For students that live on campus, some kind of meal plan is required by the University. Students who live in Toler, Gillson, Hayes-Healy, Lone Mountain North, and Fromm dorms are required to sign up for the board standard plan while students in Loyola Village, Loyola Village Townhouses, and Lone Mountain East are required to sign up for the board apartment meal plan. Those who live off campus or in off-campus housing such as Pedro Arrupe, have the option of signing up for a meal plan, but are not required to.
The standard meal plan is $2,815 per semester while the semester rate for the apartment plan is $1,100. Students also have the option to upgrade to a Flexi-cash Plus meal plan for $3,600 a semester, or the Flexi-cash Maxi meal plan for $4,060 a semester.
Johnathan B, a second-year computer science major, has struggled with managing his funds with the standard meal plan. “I found that I ran out of my Flexi extremely quickly because I was eating three times a day,” he said. “I realized that if I were to eat three times a day, I would be spending $45 each day, and that’s excluding drinks and snacks.”
Johnathan’s concerns are echoed by Larry West III, first-year politics major, who started a petition last fall which called on USF and Bon Appetit to lower the costs of meals. West’s petition suggested that the standard and apartment meal plans only allot students enough funds for about $20 a day which, when coupled with Bon Appetit’s prices, only affords them one meal.
O’Doherty said that the University and Bon Appetit are aware of this petition. “We hope our session with ASUSF answered many of the questions around the petition — particularly concerning exactly what the USF meal plan provides and our transparency around costs,” he said.
Funds for the semester are also not transferable, something Johnathan said he wishes would change. “Last year I found it frustrating that I couldn’t transfer my remaining sum to my following year, and any amount of the balance that I didn’t use would just go to waste,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum, students like Lynette Valencia, a second-year psychology major, may find themselves with a surplus of Flexi. “I have always found myself with way too much money. I buy water every day just to ensure I use it. I also have paid for several of my friends any time I can, just to get rid of some of it,” she said. “In the past, I would give my friends my ID number to buy stuff, but USF has now prohibited this.” As per university guidelines, student ID numbers may no longer be used to purchase meals. Instead, students must be present and use their physical or virtual ID cards when making these purchases.
At the Town Hall, O’Doherty explained that unused funds are put back into service. “Last year, the university spent $300,000 on kitchen repairs,” he said. “Excess funds are forfeited and put back into service, that’s where the money goes. It is not used to subsidize Bon Appetit, it’s primarily used for equipment.”
Chun Wong explained that Bon Appetit managers are available to work with students on this issue. “My first recommendation is always to look at the declining balance chart at each register,” said Chun Wong. “As every student is different, from there you can take how often you are on campus and how often you eat to assess what your weekly budget should be.”
Chun Wong said that Bon Appetit has an open door policy, where students can contact managers with any concerns. “We have several managers onsite throughout the day all week. We encourage students to ask for a manager whenever they have a question or need assistance,” she said. “Our contact info can be reached through both the USF website and Bon Appetit website.”
At the town hall meeting, O’Doherty said that USF’s pricing is considered in the context of similar universities. “I’ve looked at meal plans in Jesuit schools, in public and private, as much as I can throughout the country and USF sits right in the middle,” he said. “There are so many variations of meal plans. All-you-can-eat swipes plans are typically more expensive, which is why we try not to do that.”
“We continually do research on the programs offered at other schools, i.e., Santa Clara, San Francisco State, and St. Mary’s,” O’Doherty said. “Respectively the costs are $5,577, $5,100, and $4,800. There are trade-offs and none of these programs guarantee 21 meals a week. Both SF State and St. Mary’s have limited meal hours with full closure between those hours.”
At Johns Hopkins University, another institution that uses Bon Appetit, meal plans are determined by a select number of meals per week, rather than a lump sum of funds.
Students can choose between 12, 14, 19, 21, and unlimited swipes plans at varying costs. Excess funds at Johns Hopkins are automatically carried over to the next semester.
Similarly, at Seattle University, a fellow Jesuit institution that uses Bon Appetit, students are allowed a capped rollover of $250 in excess funds.
In a statement to the Foghorn, O’Doherty explained that the University has been working to manage the costs of meal services while remaining cognisant of national rising costs in the food service industry. He said, “All reports nationally and locally are presenting similar information in that the cost of education is outpacing inflation, food costs are exceeding consumer price index, and labor rates continue to climb.’
“There are some very big financial challenges for organizations and individuals alike,” O’Doherty continued. “On the food service side, USF and Bon Appetit have adjusted, collaborated, and managed to stay below these national and local trends at a cost to both organizations.” According to 2023 data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the San Francisco Bay Area has seen an 8% increase in food costs over the last 12 months.
In a Feb. 3 statement from President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., it was announced that there would be a 7.4% increase in meal plan cost for the 2023-2024 academic year, raising the price of a standard meal plan from $5,110 to $5,630 annually. In the statement, Fitzgerald explained that this increase is necessary in rebuilding from the impact of the pandemic and ensuring that employees are fairly compensated. In addition, O’Doherty said, “We combine food and labor as 15% increase year over year, fluctuating each month.”
O’Doherty said in today’s climate, price increases are inevitable. “There are no buried fees,” he said. “Everything in your meal plan goes directly to Bon Appetit. Costs have increased, they’re not making any extra money.”
In addition to the cost of meal plans, some students have expressed concern about the quality of the meals. Second-year biology major Beatriz Sanches de Carvalho Silva said, “I feel that USF asks for too much money, there are few options and they are of bad quality.”
Anna Harlan, a first-year nursing major, said she has experienced health issues from the food. “It makes me sick,” she said. “It causes nausea, vomiting, and food poisoning.”
Harlan even felt compelled to call the San Francisco Health Department at one point. “I was just hoping they would go and see that something isn’t right. I called them and filled out a form, but haven’t heard back,” she said.
According to a 2018 Foghorn article, the cafeteria was given a health score of 80 in 2018, which it brought back up to 86 the following year. A food safety health score is scored out of 100 points, with 80-89 being a “B.” With a B grade, USF’s health score remained in the “passing” realm but suggested there were a few violations of the San Francisco Health Department’s codes of conduct. In the 2019 health inspection, some of these violations were categorized as “unapproved or unmaintained equipment or utensils” and “moderate risk vermin infestation.”
As of 2020, San Francisco County no longer uses the number system to score health violations, instead switching to a green “pass,” a yellow “conditional pass,” or a red “closed.” The cafeteria’s most recent health inspection was conducted on Feb. 23, 2023, where the university received a “pass,” although two violations were observed: “premises; personal/cleaning items; vermin proofing.”
The cafeteria has had issues ensuring meals are accessible to students with dietary restrictions. There have been concerns raised about cross-contamination and a lack of sensitivity to cultural food management.
Second-year advertising major Gray Moxley has celiac disease and must stick to a strict gluten-free diet for his health. “It was something I looked for when applying to college: where is somewhere that has gluten-free options? Because I need to eat,” he said. “USF had gluten-free options in their menu online, but for the past two years I’ve been here my experience is that they continually cross-contaminate the food they claim is gluten-free with gluten products.
“Once, I asked for a gluten-free roll and was given a gluten-free top bun, but a glutinous bottom bun,” he said. This was not an isolated incident for Moxley he said, “Another time, I was eating gluten-free pasta and bit into a gluten macaroni noodle.”
Chun Wong suggested bringing complaints to Bon Appetit directly. “If you do have a dietary restriction, come to a manager specifically so that they can address this issue,” she said.
Moxley said he believes Bon Appetit needs a better system for this. “That’s not a practical option whatsoever, I shouldn’t have to speak to a manager every time I enter the cafeteria,” he said. “I want to be treated like every other college student and just be able to get a meal.”
In addition to allergy concerns, there has been dissatisfaction with Bon Appetit’s management of cultural food catering. University standard procedure dictates that clubs have to cater their events with Bon Appetit which, as the Foghorn previously reported, can become an issue for cultural clubs who may want to cater from local restaurants with more knowledge about their cultural foods and to support the businesses of members of their community.
Chun Wong said that Bon Appetit does what they can to limit food waste. “We work with the students in the Food Recovery Network (FRN) team to distribute leftovers to the homeless or Night Ministry,” she said. “If FRN is not available we donate to Chef’s to End World Hunger which also is donated to those in need. Should we have any raw product that we cannot use for any reason, it gets sent to the USF Food Pantry.”
Bon Appetit has also pledged a commitment to sustainability. On their website, they provide a comprehensive breakdown of where all of their products are sourced, pledging to source from local growers that have high standards of living for their livestock as much as possible. Bon Appetit’s slogan reads: “Food for a sustainable future” and the organization says it strives to “put meat in the back seat,” providing daily vegan and vegetarian options.
They have also committed to ethically sourcing seafood, pledging only to serve seafood species that are rated Best Choice or Good Alternative according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guidelines for Seafood Watch.
However, Valencia said this is not something she feels she’s seen in practice. “The cafeteria is just not very accommodating for all types of eaters, there are almost no halal or vegan, vegetarian options,” she said. “This causes me to not eat a lot of food within the cafe’s options, meaning I just do not use my Flexi.”
O’Doherty explained that in the near future, students can expect adjustments to the meal plan, as per federal guidelines. “The federal government has required all universities to create a 21 meal plan option,” he said. “In fall of 2024 this will be available. Prices will increase, the plan requires self-management and budgeting.”
The 21 meal plan option would require universities to include a meal plan option which would allow students the capacity to budget three meals a day, seven days a week. With this will come adjustments to both USF meal plan pricing and Bon Appetit costs.
“We are making changes to adjust the menu and how it is priced,” Chun Wong explained. “In the meantime, we have an open door policy and are here Monday through Saturday. We can work with you on budget management.”
The University, in partnership with Bon Appetit, has a history of trying to address student concerns. According to the Foghorn, in 2009, USF brought food from local farms to the cafeteria for a sustainability awareness event called “Low Carbon Diet Day.” In 2019, the University formed a Food and Dining committee to help communicate with students about the state of the caf, though it is unclear if it remains active.
Student Activism and Resources
According to the Foghorn’s reporting over the last decade, students have periodically engaged in activism around the state of meal services at USF. In 2013, the Senate boycotted Bon Appetit’s monopoly on campus, advocating for the organization to improve food safety and communications between Bon Appetit, USF, and students.
In 2019, the Foghorn conducted a research project which compared Bon Appetit’s pricing with local stores in order to bring awareness to the overpricing of cafeteria items. The research found that when price matching across stores, there was an average 54.43% markup from Bon Appetit on these products.
In addition to West’s petition this year, which has gained 560 signatures, the organization Flexi Fairies is working to combat food insecurity with meal plans on campus.
Emily Lutrick, a first-year undeclared science student and spokesperson for the group said, “We decided to create this project to help spread awareness about food insecurity on campus involving Flexi.
“The prices of the cafeteria do not accommodate the amount of Flexi we are given each semester,” Lutrick said. “We understand that lowering cafeteria prices is not an easy thing to do, but we believe that adjusting our Flexi plans to fit the prices of meals would significantly help with the problem.”
On March 23, Flexi Fairies hosted a Flexi Fairy Day where those with excess funds could donate a meal by accompanying another student and purchasing a meal for them on their card. The Fairies wore identifying pins in the cafeteria so that students could go up to them in the dining hall.
“We did not receive any opposition from the University,” said Lutrick. “We received a lot of support from the Student Leadership and Engagement offices.”
USF’s Food Pantry is another food insecurity resource on campus that has been used by over 1000 students this school year, according to the pantry’s coordinator Kahanu Salavea. It is open from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. every other Friday and is located in the Gleeson Library atrium, and contains non-perishable food items such as soup and boxed almond or soy milk. The food and toiletries offered at the pantry are free and first come first served to all students.
“Each USF student who uses the USF Food Pantry has a unique reason for frequenting the food pantry but the most common one I hear from students is straight up food insecurity,” said David Silver, chair of environmental studies and a member of USF’s food insecurity committee. Eleven faculty and staff members form the committee which convenes each month to plan the pantry’s operations. “With the high cost of housing and tuition, and with the lack of flexibility with Flexi, too many USF students are faced with difficult decisions between buying textbooks or buying breakfast.”
Students are able to donate to the Food Pantry on donation drive dates. The next donation drive of the spring semester will take place on April 10-14.