As part of the college dining experience, students expect to get well-rounded meals for the price they are paying. At $12 a meal, for the least expensive plan, many students feel they are not getting their money’s worth. 

While it is easier for many students to have a meal plan their freshman year, it is not always convenient for others. Food becomes one more thing to worry about, and a daily stress factor for many.

“The main reason why meal plans are mandatory for first-year students is that dining is an integral part of the student experience at NAU,” Kimberly Ott, associate vice president of communications, said.

There are growing complaints regarding the state of the food at NAU, many of which come from freshman with specific diets.  

Individuals with dietary restrictions struggle to maintain a nutritious diet as well as enjoy their food. It takes trial and error to create a meal regimen that works for them. Food at college is often very different from what students are used to at home, and it takes time to adjust to this unfamiliar dining experience. This is especially true for those who are vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, lactose intolerant, etc. 

Students with dietary restrictions have expressed that NAU Campus Dining is lacking diversity and creativity when it comes to food for those with dietary restrictions. While it is more difficult to cater to the abundance of different diets and needs these days, it is not necessary to require all students to eat on campus. NAU has not progressed enough in food innovation to do so. In turn, students with abnormal diets feel as though their already small budgets are going down the drain. 

Freshman Laura Morris is especially frustrated with Campus Dining. As a vegan, Morris found a way to adapt her eating habits to better fit her diet. She chose the cheapest meal plan – which she was required to purchase – and planned to cook for herself occasionally. Referring to NAU’s website, she was excited for vegan options. Yet when she came to college, she expressed dissatisfaction regarding the way she was eating.

“I feel like I’ve been eating the same foods on repeat for the last several months,” Morris said.

Morris reluctantly uses her meal plan, even though she feels she doesn’t receive enough nutrients or protein. Given the option to avoid purchasing a meal plan altogether, Morris said she would jump at the opportunity. 

NAU’s freshman packing list encourages students to bring a microwave, given enough room. Students have more than enough options to cook for themselves if they choose to do so. Communal kitchens are highly accessible and kitchen utensils are available for checkout. Grocery stores, such as Sprouts and Target, are less than a mile from campus; many more restaurants and grocery stores in Flagstaff are accessible by bus, bike or foot. 

Unsatisfied with the portions she receives from her meal plan, Morris has become a self-sufficient cook, focused on making flavorful, inexpensive and nutritious meals.

She typically prepares two meals that last a week and buys her groceries from Fry’s and Sam’s Club, cheaper grocery alternatives. She only uses five to seven of the 10 meals a week she purchased. Instead, Morris said, the money wasted on unused meal swipes could be going toward her grocery purchases. 

The lack of food variety has provoked frustration and leaves Morris feeling malnourished. She said the website was misleading and has false information regarding the reality of food availability at NAU. 

Other individuals also said they believe there are discrepancies between the options promised online and the reality of NAU dining. 

The Campus Dining section on the NAU website advertises ample plant-based options, luring in prospective students. A 2019 Vegan Report Card from PETA gave NAU an A+ rating. However, the student reviews are few and far between, as well as mostly negative, and contradict the high rating. 

One student reviewer even warns others who are considering NAU to save themselves the trouble and choose another school due to the lack of dietary options. 

The Campus Dining plant-based food guide advertises supplemental options for vegan and vegetarian diets. Due to closed locations, low quantity and mislabeled dishes, these options are not always available. Often, only the same few vegan dishes are offered.

“I would like to see daily rotating vegan and vegetarian options at each restaurant and dining hall on campus,” Morris said. 

Freshman Bella Rowland is gluten and dairy free and faces many limitations when it comes to her food choices. 

At NAU it is next to impossible to find appetizing food that meets her restrictions, Rowland said. She has practically stopped using her meal swipes because she can’t eat much at the all-you-care-to-eat locations. Optimistic for a variety of options, Rowland signed up for the 19 meals-a-week platinum plan for her first semester — much to her disappointment — and has now switched to the 10 meals-a-week plan that comes with $400 worth of dining dollars. 

Rowland said she would probably consider purchasing dining dollars next year because some of the on-campus restaurants actually do have options that accommodate her diet such as Cobrizo, Qdoba, Jamba Juice and Burger Confusion. However, Rowland said she will certainly avoid another meal plan that is an inconvenience to her.

It is not an option for freshmen to solely purchase dining dollars. 

Freshman Stella Cronin, a pescatarian, said she agrees that the required meal plan is not ideal for all students. With limited choices, she eats frequently at Star Ginger because tofu is offered there. There’s a catch, unfortunately: Star Ginger is only open during the weekdays. 

Operational hours are another factor students run into when deciding where to eat. On the weekends, only about half the on-campus restaurants are open. The options are limited even more — and students must turn to alternative options — like fast food or shopping for their own groceries. 

“I feel like I spend a lot of money shopping for food or with my dining dollars outside of the meal plan,” Cronin said. 

Students said they feel the on-campus grocers are another trap for college students’ money. Prices at the Eat Food Market and the Wedge Pizza and Market are extremely high. A 16 oz jar of Jif peanut butter costs $6.49 at the Wedge. At Fry’s, the same product is $2.49. 

Cronin said she is looking forward to next year when she can spend more of her money going out to eat in Flagstaff. The meal plan — for now — puts a dent in those plans.    

For freshman Tommy Wells, the meal plan requirement is not an issue. His purchase is well worth it, and he tends to use all of the 14 meals in his platinum plan. 

“I use all of them and then I just make breakfast in the morning,” Wells said. 

However, he does not have any dietary restrictions and can choose to eat anything the HotSpot or Dub offers, as well as dine at any of the on-campus restaurants. Nevertheless, Wells said he still wishes for more variety when it comes to the food served. 

NAU implemented LeanPath in 2012 — a program that tracks food waste — but has struggled to keep it at the forefront of operations since the pandemic started. LeanPath is a way for NAU’s culinary teams to determine what changes need to be made to lessen the amount of food that is wasted. 

“Campus Dining is currently restarting programs focusing on operational efficiencies and waste reduction, including LeanPath, but the continued variations in service delivery and demand due to COVID-19 has slowed our ability to make systemic progress in streamlining production and reducing waste,” General Manager of NAU Campus Dining, Casey Fisher, said.

With LeanPath starting back up, it may lead to a better variety of food served on campus. 

For those interested in sharing their voice on NAU Campus Dining, Food For Thought meetings are held monthly. The next meeting is Feb. 23 from 4-5 p.m. upstairs in the University Union, Walnut Room.  

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