Biting Back: Student Resistance to Updates to the Tufts Meal Swipe Policy
ART BY BY UMA EDULBEHRAM
On Sunday, November 5, animated by the quiet nods and gentle snaps of student senators, Resolution S. 23-8, A Resolution and Petition Calling on Tufts University to Allow Students More Freedom in their Use of Meal Swipes, unanimously passed in the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate. Addressing issues like one-swipe maximums, price gouging, and guest swipe limits, the resolution gives voice to hundreds of students feeling fed up and underfed by recent dining policy changes.
Among other restrictions, the updated meal swipe policy limits students to one swipe per meal period at retail locations like Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run and Kindlevan Café. While in the past students have been able to stock up on Hodge or double-dip at Kindlevan, the updated policy forces even premium plan users to ration their swipes.
It was after a failed attempt to double-swipe at Hodge early this semester that sophomores Anand Patil and Corey Title resolved to do something about it. “We were sitting at this desk right here,” said Patil, a TCU senator, pointing at a wooden table in the TCU Senate office, “when we decided we were going to create a petition.” What began as an idea between friends wanting more out of their meal swipe became a university-wide initiative, garnering nearly 1,300 signatures by the end of October. The petition inspired the creation of Resolution S. 23-8, which was collaboratively authored by 10 TCU senators in the freshman, sophomore, and junior class years.
In defense of the changes, Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos explained in an interview with the Tufts Daily that this semester’s meal swipe policy has been the policy for years, temporarily lifted during COVID-19 but otherwise status quo.
In response, Patil explained that “These past two years… showed us how much better the [less restrictive] option is, and I think that the student body deserves this flexibility permanently.” As such, the resolution addresses the “increasingly restrictive” nature of the premium meal plan.
For Leyla Mandel—a junior combined-degree student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts who has been on the premium plan since her freshman year—the plan “used to be a way to make sure that I always had a meal when I wanted one.” She explained, “I’m no chef, and I don’t really have time to cook meals because I’m taking six classes.” So, when given the chance to renew her premium plan this summer, she took it.
Unbeknownst to Mandel, however, the updated policies complicate the plan’s perceived benefits. With fall meal plans beginning on September 3 and ending on December 22, students on the premium plan have 107 days to use 400 swipes, accounting for the four-day dining closure over Thanksgiving break. With the updated one-swipe maximum at retail locations, however, students are hard-pressed to make the most of their plan. “There’s no way that anyone’s going to ever use all of the swipes,” said Mandel. “It’s just not possible.”
When asked if she knew about the changes before selecting her meal plan, Mandel answered, “I had no clue. I was shocked when I came to campus.” When asked if knowing would have impacted her decision, she answered bluntly: “Oh, for sure.”
Mandel was not alone in her surprise. “I think students found out basically with a screenshot on Sidechat,” said Patil. “Especially at the start of the school year, we had some dining staff telling us you can only go from Dewick to Hodge, but you can’t go from Hodge to Dewick, some people saying there’s a 30-minute limit… I even thought about emailing [Klos] just to figure out what was actually changed because we just didn’t know.”
The recently passed resolution addresses this confusion, demanding that Tufts “[commit] to complete clarity and transparency on all details related to Tufts Dining services and changes made to the use of meal swipe services.”
Among complaints regarding transparency and clarity lies the suspicion that Tufts inflates prices at retail locations. The resolution explains that “the price of items in retail dining locations are often higher than normally found and increase in price each year, which diminishes the effective value of a meal swipe equivalency.” For many, the confusion stems from a lack of clear pricing, which makes data on price gouging hard to find. “Hodge has the prices on all of their items, but not really all of them,” explained Mandel. “Sometimes when you’re buying certain drinks the price is on it, but say I want to get an [ice cream], the price is not on that.”
The fear, then, is that Tufts Dining, under a veil of confusion, can upcharge prices with little consequence. To address this, the resolution includes a clause asking that Tufts Dining not mark up food items more than 20 percent of what they paid for it.
In addition to transparency and clarity, the resolution also aims to address the impact of policy changes on students at the SMFA. Kunal Botla, a freshman combined degree student, TCU senator, and co-author of the resolution, explained that for SMFA students, “flexibility [in the meal swipe system] just doesn’t exist.”
Unlike the Medford/Somerville campus, the only dining option for students at the SMFA is the SMFA Café, a retail location that accepts just one meal swipe per meal period under Tufts’ updated policy. Botla, like all first-year students, is on the premium meal plan, and when asked how often he uses JumboCash in addition to his meal swipe, he answered, “Anytime I eat at the SMFA Café.”
Additionally, Botla explained that “Tufts Dining… bases its schedule and protocols off [the Medford campus’],” creating problems for SMFA students taking later classes. “In the evening, [SMFA Café] closes at 6:30, but studios usually end between 7:30 and 8:30, so you’re kind of dependent on the professor being able to structure class in a way where there is a break for students to get dinner.” Even when professors do allow time before closing, Botla pointed out, “the food at SMFA Café [still being served] at the end of the day isn’t enough to make a meal.”
With the new resolution, however, Botla has regained some optimism. “I’m hopeful that [Tufts Dining] will be receptive to more of the administrative suggestions and concerns that [the resolution is] bringing up, especially because there’s, at least from our perspective… a pretty clear path to mitigation.” Going forward, Botla added that Tufts Dining must implement “some kind of plan… to solve greater issues regarding food insecurity and general quality food access [on campus].”
Increased food insecurity is another issue addressed in the resolution, with many claiming that the recent policy changes exacerbate already prevalent concerns regarding easy access to quality food. “On the Senate, we have been working and are continuing to work… with the Dean of Students and Tufts Dining on combating food insecurity on campus,” explained Patil. “So when I saw the [policy] changes, my first thought was, this is just such a major step backward for our food security initiatives.”
One way the changes have backtracked these initiatives is through the creation of guest swipe limits. While in the past, students could use any number of meal plan swipes to swipe in a friend or family member, Tufts’ updated policy states, “Guest swipes are separate, additional swipes and do not draw down your meal plan balance.” This is to say that students are limited to eight, six, two, or zero guest swipes per semester depending on the price of their plan.
According to Jose Armando, the co-chair of TCU Senate’s Food Insecurity Subcommittee, the implementation of guest swipe limits ends a campus-wide tradition of underclassmen swiping upperclassmen into dining halls. This system worked to “[reduce] the amount of students facing food insecurity” by assisting upperclassmen who “pay their own rent and don’t have a meal plan” and are therefore particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
In addition, there is a worry about the policy changes’ impact on low-income students, many of whom face some level of food insecurity already. In a 2023 campus survey, 11.82 percent of Tufts respondents said that they did not eat despite being hungry due to financial constraints within the past month, and 26.32 percent of Tufts respondents said they did not eat despite being hungry due to a lack of access to food sometime in the past month. With this in mind, the resolution states that “Tufts has committed to being an equitable institution” and that “these dining hall policies increase the true cost of eating… which disproportionately affects low-income students by requiring additional expenses beyond a meal plan.”
On Monday, November 6, TCU senators met with Vice President for Operations Barbara Stein, Executive Vice President of Tufts University Mike Howard, and Klos herself to discuss next steps. While the three administrators requested that no press be in attendance, meeting notes from that night shared with the Observer revealed a promise on behalf of the administration to “carefully look at the resolution and [TCU senators’] requests, crunch numbers, analyze data, consider alternative options, and come back to the table in a month to continue the conversation.”
The fight, then, is not over, but both senators and administration seem hopeful that a compromise is within reach. “The administrators appreciated hearing firsthand the students’ concerns,” said Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, in a written statement to the Observer. “[We] expect to follow up with them before the end of the semester.” The resolution’s authors share a similar sense of optimism. “What I hope will happen is that… [the administration is] responsive to our concerns and… we create at least a plan to fix some of these issues,” said Patil. “We just need that spark, and that’s what the resolution gives us. It gives a meeting. It gives us attention from the higher-ups, and that’s how change happens.”