I was excited when the Marketplace opened up last year. More dining options and slightly better quality, so what’s not to like? The prices.
Food at all of the resident dining halls is discounted because of the $1,387 membership fee students pay when they purchase a resident meal plan. According to Sodexo, this fee covers the costs of all “labor, supplies, maintenance, utilities and paper” associated with making the food. Meal plans cost an additional $463 to $1,167, which is used as spending money or dining dollars. So the food at the residential dining halls is sold at the wholesale cost of ingredients — a heavy discount of roughly 45 percent. However, food at the Marketplace is not sold at discounted prices. If you ask most students why Marketplace food is not discounted, they will say the same thing that Sodexo says: It’s “retail dining.” But if you ask most students to explain what this means, and why it accounts for non-discounted food prices despite the large membership fee, they’re stumped.
There are some Marketplace options that aren’t owned by Sodexo, like Moghul and Red Mango, and it seems reasonable that those stores aren’t discounted; the membership fee wouldn’t cover their operating expenses. But the same can’t be said for the other Marketplace eateries like The Diner, New York Street Deli, Cakes and Eggs and others. Those are owned and operated by the same Sodexo that owns and operates the resident dining halls. The only real difference between “resident dining halls” and “retail dining” seems to be what we call them. Yes, the “retail dining” feels a little different, but other than its location and the fact that each eatery is more specialized, there’s no real difference. So why do students unhesitatingly pay the higher non-discounted prices?
The notion that retail dining is fancier or higher quality is only insulting (maybe deservedly so) to the quality of its resident dining hall food. Mein Bowl is not fancy or particularly good, nor is New York Street Deli or Cake and Eggs. And even if the ingredients are higher quality, it only means we should pay a higher price for the cost of those ingredients (as we do when there is higher quality food in the resident dining halls). It doesn’t mean that the operating costs of providing those higher quality foods should be exempt from the $1,387 membership fee. The more students spend at the Marketplace, the more they dilute the value of the membership fee and meal plan.
Similarly, before this semester, Night Owl prices were alarmingly high. Students would drain their meal plans on marked up Night Owl food that cost much more than meals at discounted resident dining hall prices. This seemed like an even more blatant breach of Sodexo’s contract because Night Owls were literally located in resident dining halls. Luckily, this year, Sodexo corrected this by dramatically lowering Night Owl prices to a fraction of what they used to be.
A slightly different change needs to occur at Sodexo-owned stores in the Marketplace. Prices don’t necessarily need to be lowered across the board, but they do need to be discounted. Bringing better food to the Marketplace, as some students have suggested, doesn’t address the contractual issue at hand. Better food at non-discounted prices still drains students’ meal plans and makes us question the need for a membership fee in the first place.