How much are meal punches at JMU really worth, do students feel they’re getting fair value with meal plans and do they know if they aren’t?
The Madison Business Review sought to answer those questions after JMU Dining Services set out to raise meal plan prices for the second straight year after the pandemic caused on-campus meal sales to slide 36% year-over-year in the 2019-20 academic year.
Dining revenue fell by $18 million last year to $32 million, Towana Hickman Moore, associate vice president of business services, said in an email on behalf of JMU and JMU Dining. That's down from about $50 million in 2018-19 and about $47 million in 2017-18, according to JMU Dining’s 2019 Year in Review booklet seen by the Madison Business Review.
As revenue fell, JMU Dining revamped its slate of residential meal plans to offer more food but for several hundred more dollars. The meal plans, which are mandatory purchases for freshmen, ranged from $2,688 to $3,020 per semester in 2020-21, up from $2,536 to $2,755 per semester in 2019-20.
And it appears JMU Dining isn’t done raising meal plan prices. In the past week, meal plan prices rose about 2.5% across the board to a range of $2,755 to $3,093 per semester as students prepare for the 2021-22 academic year.
"These are proposed prices for next year pending Board of Visitor approval," Moore said in an email, adding that price increases of gasoline, food, labor and transportation are "much higher" than the proposed 2.5% increase.
Meal plan prices are mutually agreed upon each year by the university and Aramark, JMU’s food-service provider, Moore said in an email. Several factors affect meal-plan prices, Moore said, including inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index, labor costs, food costs, facility operating costs and debt costs from opening new dining facilities.
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Construction costs of D-Hall in 2018 and Dukes Dining in 2020 and the destruction of their predecessors were over $105 million alone, the Madison Business Review reported in December. Moore said those projects were funded by money students pay for meal plans.
“All debt associated with all 26 of our operations has to be covered by the meal plan revenues,” Moore said in an email. “All of these building costs have to be factored into the cost of our meal plans in addition to regular operating costs.”
To pay off debt for those new dining facilities, fund minimum wage raises for dining workers and stay ahead of inflation that’s expected to steadily rise as the U.S. economy rebounds from the pandemic-induced downturn, JMU Dining increased prices on meal plans while giving more punches per plan.
Meal punches are included with every JMU Dining meal plan and can be used as admission to all-you-care-to-eat dining halls like D-Hall and E-Hall, as “Duke Deal” combo meals at select on-campus restaurants or as $7 of value at on-campus eateries.
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Duke Deals were created at the request of students and offer flexibility, Moore said in an email. She added that the combo deals “are intended as a treat” and acknowledged that the best value for punches are the “nutritionally balanced meals” offered in dining halls.
Moore is right that punches are best used at D-Hall and E-Hall, which cost $14 each to enter without a meal punch. The Madison Business Review’s analysis of JMU Dining’s meal plans found that students are wasting money every time they punch for $7 of value, as punches cost between $7.89 to $12.80 each in 2020-21. Those costs may not be clear to all students.
Below is a detailed breakdown of the cost-per-punch in each of JMU Dining’s meal plans before and after its 2020-21 and proposed 2021-22 updates and a comparison of that value to other schools’ dining plans.
JMU Dining’s meal plans: Punching below their weight?
Students living on campus are required to purchase one of four residential meal plans: 14 Punch, 11 Punch, All Access or All Access Plus, which ranged from $2,688 to $3,020 per semester in 2020-21 and are expected to be $2,755 to $3,093 per semester in 2021-22, as mentioned earlier. Those living in Grace Street Apartments, which are owned and operated by JMU, may instead buy a commuter meal plan, which started at $883 in 2020-21 and are expected to start at $905 next year.
JMU Dining’s 14 Punch plan offered students 14 meal punches per week along with $275 Dining Dollars and seven guest punches per semester. Subtracting the $275 Dining Dollars from the $2,688 meal plan equals $2,413, which is the cost of the 231 punches in the plan, including the seven guest punches. That means punches in the 14 Punch plan cost $10.45 each.
Last year, JMU Dining’s 14 Punch plan cost $2,536 and also included $275 Dining Dollars, but it didn’t have seven guest punches. Students on that plan had 14 punches per week for 16 weeks for a total of 224 punches and paid $10.09 per punch. Dividing the price of JMU Dining’s new 14 Punch plan by its 2019 version shows prices rose 3.6% year-over-year on a per-punch basis.
The cost-per punch on the 14 Punch plan is expected to rise another 2.8% to $10.74 in 2021-22.
The university’s 11 Punch plan in 2020-21 gave students 11 meal passes per week, $500 Dining Dollars per semester and five guest punches per semester for $2,816. Students pay $2,316 for punches in this plan, excluding $500 Dining Dollars, and receive 181 punches per semester, including the five guest punches. Simple division shows that punches cost $12.80 each.
JMU Dining’s 11 Punch plan in the 2019-20 academic year cost $2,657 and also included $500 Dining Dollars, though it didn’t have guest punches. The 176 punches included in the semester-long plan cost $2,157, excluding the cost of Dining Dollars, and were $12.26 each. The price-per-punch on the 11 Punch plan increased 4.4% from last year.
The cost-per punch on the 11 Punch plan is expected to leap 3% higher to $13.18 in 2021-22.
To put the cost of JMU Dining’s meal plans in context, the Madison Business Review analyzed meal plan costs on a per-meal basis at the University of Virginia and the University of Florida — both of which have dining services also run by Aramark.
UVA Dining Services offers an All Access plan, analyzed in detail below, but otherwise has plans with meals that expire at the end of the semester instead of the end of the week, so there’s no direct equivalent to JMU Dining’s 14 Punch or 11 Punch plans.
At the University of Florida, whose Gator Dining Services are also run by Aramark, a comparable 10 Punch plan costs $1,765 and includes $550 Flex Bucks, which are equivalent to JMU’s Dining Dollars. Students on that plan pay $1,215 for 160 punches in a 16-week semester after subtracting out the $550 Flex Bucks and pay $7.59 per punch — 40% less than at JMU.
Moore said in an email that it’s “very difficult” to compare dining costs and operations across colleges and added that she isn’t familiar with U of F’s meal-plan structure.
New All Access plans: Cheaper per punch — if students use them
JMU Dining’s All Access and All Access Plus plans cost $2,920 and $3,020, respectively, in 2020-21 and provide students with unlimited visits to D-Hall and E-Hall, which are buffet-style dining halls, as well as three meal punches per day for Duke Deals, 12 guest punches per semester and respective Dining Dollar allotments of $175 and $275. Meal punches in these plans don’t roll over day-to-day, so students must use them or lose them each day.
“Research has shown that many students eat mini-meals throughout the day and don’t want to be concerned with how many meals they have left during the week,” Moore said in an email. “We provided this option to allow students the flexibility of eating as much as they want, as often as they want.”
In these plans, which are identical except that the Plus plan has an extra $100 Dining Dollars, punches cost $7.89 each. Students on these plans get unlimited access to D-Hall and E-Hall as well as 348 punches per semester: 21 per week for 16 weeks plus 12 guest punches. Taking the $3,020 price of the All Access Plus plan and subtracting out $275 Dining Dollars equals $2,745 — the cost of all 348 punches — and dividing the number of punches by that total yields $7.89.
For students that eat often, like junior accounting major Billy Riefenhauser, the All Access plan may be seen as a steal. Riefenhauser, who lives on campus in the Bluestone Area, said he typically eats six to seven meals per day: four combined visits to D-Hall and E-Hall while using his three daily punches for Dukes Deals at places like The Den by Denny’s and Market 64.
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“I like [the All Access plan] because it’s affordable,” Riefenhauser said. “It’s like I pay for a certain amount, but I know I can get as much as I really want because of the buffet and everything. Plus, I have like $21 dollars [JMU Dining’s assigned monetary value for punches is $7 each] to work with outside of D-Hall and E-Hall every day.”
When he moves off-campus next year, Riefenhauser said he’ll probably choose the 14 Punch plan instead since he won’t be within walking distance of the dining halls.
At UVA, first-year students are required to purchase the All Access meal plan, which includes 10 guest meals and between $150 and $400 of Flex Dollars, which are equivalent to JMU’s Dining Dollars. On a per-punch basis, the cost of UVA Dining Services’ All Access plans are slightly cheaper than JMU’s.
UVA’s All Access meal plan starts at $2,695 and includes $150 Flex Dollars, meaning the cost of 346 meals in a semester — assuming students eat 21 meals per week in a 16-week semester and use 10 guest meals — is $7.36 per meal, or 6.7% cheaper than the $7.89 per punch in JMU’s All Access plan. UVA Dining Services also offers a $2,820 plan with $300 Flex Dollars and a $2,895 plan with $400 Flex Dollars, which have respective per-meal prices of $7.28 and $7.21, following the same process as above.
Meanwhile, the University of Florida’s Gator Dining Services’ comparable meal plan costs $2,300 per semester and $5.51 per meal swipe — over 30% less than JMU’s cost per punch of $7.89. The school’s 7-Day All Access Plus meal plan offers unlimited meal swipes for seven days a week throughout a semester along with $450 Flex Bucks.
Assuming U of F students use three meal swipes per day — or 21 per week — students on that plan have 336 meal swipes over a 16-week semester. Subtracting out the $450 Flex Bucks from the meal plan’s $2,300 price yields $1,850, and dividing that by 336 yields $5.51 per swipe.
These price-per-meal calculations don’t factor in skipped meals and are only accurate if students maximize their meal plan by eating an average of three meals per day on campus for every day of the semester. That’s far from the case at the University of Florida or JMU.
About 52% of meals at the University of Florida went unused in fall 2018, the university’s student-run newspaper, The Alligator, reported last February. That means that on Gator Dining Services’ 7-Day All Access Plus meal plan, an average of 161 of 336 meals went unused, which would mean students using just under half their swipes paid $11.49 per meal instead of $5.51.
But at JMU, only about 8% of meals go unused, Moore said in an email, adding that she assumes that JMU Dining’s “double punching” policy, where students can use two or more meal punches at once, is responsible for the difference.
“Meal plans are priced assuming that a certain number of meals will not be used,” Moore said in an email. “This is called the ‘missed meal factor.’ As you can see, our missed meal factor is 8% versus 52% for U of F. We know almost all of our meals will be consumed; therefore, the plans are priced accordingly.”
JMU Dining’s double-punching policy, which Moore said is a “much more expensive part of [JMU’s dining] program,” leads to a relatively low wasted-punch rate compared to schools without such a policy. Students who buy snacks in bulk to burn through unused punches at the end of the week leave JMU Dining worse off than if punches go unused, though that doesn’t necessarily mean students are maximizing value of their meal plans, as shown below.
‘It wouldn’t make sense to not have one’: Students pay up for on-campus convenience
Tessa Cyrus, a freshman communication studies major living on East Campus, has the 14 Punch plan and said she’s mostly satisfied with it, adding that she doesn’t think there’s another meal plan that fits her better. She usually uses her punches in Dukes Dining and at E-Hall and Festival Food Court, and she said she typically has at most three punches left over at the end of the week.
When asked in an interview what she liked about her meal plan and what she didn’t, Cyrus’ response was mixed, especially on whether punches were a good value.
“I like that at the places that aren’t dining halls like Chick-Fil-A and places at [Dukes Dining], you can get things for a punch still — I think that’s pretty nice,” Cyrus said. “I don’t like that at places like Festival or Market  — OK — they say that a punch is worth $7, but I don’t think that’s true because you get the tiniest bit of nothing, and it’s always over a punch.”
After learning that punches on her 14 Punch plan cost her parents, who bought her meal plan, $10.45 each in 2020-21, even though she can only redeem punches for $7 at certain on-campus locations, Cyrus said she was surprised. However, she said she’s been charged over a punch for sushi and a cup of water before, which she didn’t understand. When asked how much she thought a punch was worth, Cyrus wasn’t sure.
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“I don’t know how it fully works, but basically, they say — or I thought that I read — that a punch is worth $7,” Cyrus said. “But in my experience ... if you go to Festival [Food Court] and you get one of the meals there for a punch, as soon as you add, like, just a water, it’s somehow punch and dining.”
On-campus dining sites like Festival Food Court and Market 64 offer a la carte meals and snacks that can be purchased for a punch, and they’re especially busy on Fridays and Saturdays. That’s when many students use three, four or five punches on a hoard of snacks and drinks since meal punches expire at the end of each week.
Three bags of chips, five bottled drinks and packaged sushi may total about $24, but if a student on the 14 Punch plan like Cyrus pays with four meal punches, the true cost of those items is over $41, given that punches on that plan really cost $10.45. On the 11 Punch plan, the total cost of four punches is over $51, given that punches cost the plan purchaser $12.80 each.
“I feel like end-of-week punches, you always feel, like, really excited about it, and I always feel like, ‘Yes, I’m spending my punches, so I’m not just giving JMU free money, I’m like, using up all my punches,’” Cyrus said. “But now, I don’t feel great about it.”
When asked how she felt about JMU Dining’s meal plan price hikes, Cyrus said she understands the financial shortfall JMU Dining is facing but not the discrepancy between punches’ assigned value and how much they cost to purchase. After all, she noted, the pandemic had a financial impact on students and their families as well as the university.
“I don’t know, I mean, I guess it makes sense if the school needs it in light of the pandemic, I understand,” Cyrus said. “It’s definitely annoying though. Like, I don’t love the idea of my parents just burning through dollars.”
That may not stop Cyrus from buying a meal plan next year when she’s living off-campus. She said she may be “too lazy” to cook every meal at home and will likely buy food on campus, but she may look into just getting Dining Dollars Gold, which give students a 5% discount on meals, waive sales tax at retail locations, can be redeemed any time and never expire — unlike punches.
“I mean, it makes me want to get a meal plan less next year, but I feel like I still will have to, especially if classes are in person,” Cyrus said. “It wouldn’t make sense to not have one.”
James Faris is a senior media arts and design major. Contact James at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.