Should colleges mandate all-you-can-eat buffets?


The all-you-care-to-eat dining plan has been a staple on college campuses for many years. But is the all-you-care-to-eat dining plan the right option to meet the needs of students?


POINT: Yes, colleges should mandate all-you-can-eat buffets.
By Jessica Dye, Unigo Editor

The all-you-can-eat buffet has gotten a bad rap.  Apparently, today’s youth are so overwhelmed by the choice between pizza and pasta, burgers and cheesesteaks, fro-yo and brownies, that they’re choosing it all, leading (presumably) to sad lives of buffet-related obesity.  “I can’t help it!” they say.  “My meal plan made me do it!” 

But that’s no reason to stop the buffet-style dining hall set-up.  After all, colleges have the difficult task of providing suitable sustenance to thousands of students every day, each of whom has a set of dietary needs, wants, and capricious demands.  There’s the vegan who hates vegetables, the lactose-intolerant meat-lover, and the kid who will only eat deep-fried anything.  There are girls on a strict Saturday-night skinny-jeans diets, and there are guys for whom the Michael Phelps diet is just a snack.  Some schools can cater to all these different demands with dozens of dining options.  But some schools need to have a few, simple options that meet as many different needs as possible, in a nutritious way, three times a day.  There has to be variety, there have to be options, and it has to be good. 

An all-you-can-eat buffet is like a one-size-fits-all t-shirt: It’s not always perfect, but it will fit everyone.  While a la carte and point-system meal plans might work, they’re not surefire bets for a nutritious meal.  Maybe buffet-goers feel obligated to get their money’s worth every time.  But it shouldn’t be about that—it should be piecing together a healthy plate.  And a buffet makes that possible.  Say you’ve got a swipe-card with a pre-set number of dollars or points to spend.  Do you, broke college student, go for a healthy meal of protein, veggies, and carbs, or do you spring for a piece of pizza you can eat on the couch during Gossip Girl?  While buffets have their obligatory fried n’ fatty corner, they nearly always offer a salad bar, as well as vegan and vegetarian options. 

Some argue that all-you-can-eat buffets lead to unhealthy overeating.  A study from Cornell University found that, when placed in an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, customers with higher BMIs sat closer to the food, loaded up their plates without looking around first, and ate faster.  Slimmer patrons ate less food more slowly, employed chopsticks instead of forks, and took the time to plan their meal before digging in.  The conclusion was that the eating habits you bring to the buffet impact how much (and how wisely) you consume, more so than the buffet’s siren song.  No matter how tempting the pancakes, students are in charge of their own eating habits.  And hey—we’re all going to have to eat for the rest of our lives.  It’s an important habit. 

Granted, the price is probably steeper for a buffet-style meal plan than if you made every meal from scratch.  But you’re not paying for groceries, you’re paying for three square meals a day, the wages of the people who cook them and clean your dishes, and the kitchen it takes to cook it in.  This is true for every meal you don’t make yourself.  Sometimes you get your money’s worth, and sometimes you don’t.  But is that $6 sandwich really a better bargain? 

This isn’t to say that all colleges should switch to all-you-can-eat serving styles.  But keeping that option open gives colleges a reliable way to please as many people as possible without breaking the bank. And if you can’t resist the siren song of seconds on dessert, maybe it’s time to stop blaming the buffet.


COUNTERPOINT: No, colleges should not mandate all-you-can-eat buffets.
By Mike Dang, Unigo Editor

Is it just me, or does the all-you-care-to-eat dining plan seem like a really steep deal these days? Three years ago, college students were met with the single largest cut in the history of federal financial aid programs, and with our country now going into financial crisis mode, it sounds kind of crazy to be gorging from the buffet while families are scrounging to put dinner on the table. Yet, some of you are thinking, with college costs rising each year, we might as well get our money’s worth, right?

This is the kind of thinking that will make bellies full, but wallets empty. By loading up on pizza and French fries, college students are just feeding into the campus dining system and accepting that school-mandated all-you-care-to-eat meal plans are their only options, when they really shouldn’t be. We can talk endlessly about the health and weight issues that come along with the buffet, but let’s follow the money for a minute.

Take the University of Pennsylvania, where all freshmen are required to purchase a $3,981-per-year dining plan. Penn students are given the option to choose from four plans. The “Quaker Plan,” for example, provides the student with 650 all-you-care-to-eat dining hall visits and $100 in dining dollars that can be used at other on-campus dining facilities. Sounds reasonable at first, but look at it this way: in a nine-month academic year, students are paying $442 a month, or roughly $110 a week, for their nearly three meals a day — enough money to feed a family of five.

With nearly two-thirds of college students graduating with debt, students should be offered cheaper alternatives to the all-you-care-to-eat plans, like an a la carte pay-as-you-go system. This system gives students the responsibility of managing their own dining budgets — a skill they’ll need to have once they’ve graduated and realized that life is not an all-you-care-to-eat buffet. Sometimes all you want for a breakfast is a banana that costs 50 cents.

There’s also a practical reason for a pay-as-you-go alternative meal plan: unused all-you-care-to-eat visits are generally non-refundable and expire at the end of the year. As students get more involved in their studies, extracurriculars and off-campus social life, they usually find themselves eating less on campus than they normally do. Imagine all the fun those 20 unused meals could have paid for by year’s end. The pay-as-you-go alternative ensures that students aren’t limited to eating on-campus every day if they don’t want to, and can head to a nice restaurant without worrying about wasting a meal swipe.

Sure, the all-you-care-to-eat buffet can be pretty sweet on days before midterms and finals when students require tons of brain food, but nobody needs to eat like they’re heading into hibernation. Athletes who do eat like bears should keep the costs of food in mind when budgeting for college, just as biology majors who need to budget for all those lab supplies or studio art majors who need to buy paint and scrap metal by the truckload.

Budgeting for college is not always easy, but when it comes to campus dining, college students should put less money where their mouths are and more into their bank accounts. 


The opinions in these pieces do not represent those of Unigo.

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