University of Wisconsin-Madison students staged a protest at a campus dining hall Tuesday, briefly blocking entry to it, to demonstrate their outrage at a mandatory purchase program they say will strap low-income students and shortchange those with dietary restrictions.
Chanting “I can’t eat!” about 100 students marched through the market area of Gordon Dining Hall, 770 W. Dayton St., the Daily Cardinal reported. Several read testimonies about how a mandatory $1,400 minimum deposit for food purchases for students living in campus residence halls would impact them.
Protest organizer Rena Yehuda Newman told the Cap Times that beyond the negative financial impact of the plan, it is objectionable because campus officials devised it without consultation with students, who found out about it only through a newspaper article.
“I oppose this policy because of the harm that it does to my fellow students, especially low income students,” Newman said. “This policy is a tremendous, unfair burden on hundreds if not thousands of students and their families who are already overpaying for the costs of living here at UW Madison."
“This policy makes students with dietary restrictions pay for food they cannot eat, makes students with kosher or halal observances pay for food that goes against their religious code, and takes away student autonomy and agency over what, how, and where they eat,” said Newman. “The carelessness of this University Housing policy has not gone unnoticed. Students were not consulted in this decision whatsoever.”
Organizing student Tyriek Mack said the protest was successful because the student's message that the meal plan must be eliminated was being heard.
"The average UW student graduates with $30,000 of student debt. The extra cost of this meal plan does not help UW become a more accessible place for all students," Mack said.
"Students not being consulted is definitely a problem. Considering the state's weakening of shared governance, this should not be a surprise," he said. "The issue that's most urgent to students right now is ensuring that this meal plan is not implemented."
Opposition to the plan erupted soon after it became public in November, and critics launched a petition against it that eventually garnered a reported 3,673 signatures.
Under the new dining plan, the university will require residents of UW Housing to deposit $1,400 to $3,100 on their WisCard, a student ID and purchasing card, to be used exclusively in dining halls and at student unions. Students may pay quarterly.
Students will have the ability to carry over unused meal plan funds on their Resident Food Account to the next academic year, says a FAQ on the program.
The new meal plan is an attempt to let parents know how much students likely will be spending at dining halls during the year, University Housing Dining and Culinary Services officials say. The $1,400 minimum is the average annual student expenditure on food at dining areas and student unions.
Campus spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said Wednesday that UW-Madison offers the most affordable room and board plan in the Big Ten and is the only school in the Big Ten to maintain a purely a la carte dining program.
"All Big Ten and UW System schools have required meal plans for on-campus residents ranging from $2,480 to $6,200 ($3,255 to $6,200 in the Big Ten)," McGlone said.
She said that Housing Division leaders consulted with student government before announcing the plan and in December announced changes after receiving additional student input.
And because the dining fee is included in the quarterly housing bill, it can be paid for with financial aid, she added.
"For students with special dietary needs, Dining offers halal options at all of its marketplaces as well as a selection of grab-and-go kosher items," McGlone said. "In the rare occurrence that Dining is not able to meet the needs of an individual student, there will be a review process for exemption."
This post has been corrected to say that money in Resident Food Accounts can be carried over to the following academic year.