For students, access to cheap and quick meals is an essential part of getting through a busy day, but some have had to give that up after being confronted with new dining hall prices.
In the 2023-24 academic year, UC Santa Cruz increased dining hall prices by about 50 percent. Students are hesitating, and in some cases flat-out refusing, to visit the dining hall for a meal between classes.
“I just decide not to eat on campus,” said fourth-year Katrina Clugston. “I can’t justify that price as a necessity.”
Before, it cost $8.28 to swipe into the dining hall for those with a meal plan. Now, it costs $12.23 when paying with Slug Points, Flexis, or Banana Bucks, and $14 with credit or debit.
Executive Director of UCSC Dining Bill Prime stated that dining administrators decided to increase prices at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
From 2012 to 2022, dining hall prices have stayed around eight dollars. After a decade of inflation and minimum wage increases, administrators justify the spike in prices as compensation for money lost during the lack of on-campus activity during the pandemic.
“Coming into this year, [the price increase] was necessary. Everything has gone up since COVID-19,” Prime said. “The only reason is expenses to cover dining operations.”
[PULLOUT} UCSC Dining services does not receive funding from tuition or the UC. Prime explains that money from the meal plans is the only source of funding for these four separate categories:
(1) Food costs, are funded 35 percent of the revenue
(2) Labor costs, are funded by 55 percent of revenue,
(3) Non-food products (such as utensils, plates, and to-go containers) are funded 5 percent of revenue
(4) Non-controllables (utilities and maintenance) are funded by 5 percent of revenue
New regulations have also been put in place restricting the purchase of to-go Eco-Boxes on weekdays before late-night. UCSC Dining Administration limited the purchasing hours for to-go boxes in order to coincide with times when students have class the most.
Bill Prime said in an email to City on a Hill Press that UCSC Dining “implemented a $10 refundable deposit to encourage students to return the Eco-boxes to the dining halls on a regular basis.”
The restrictions on Eco-boxes and overall additional cost for the dining hall have made some feel that the options and portions for meals have been limited.
“There’s a lack of dining hall options for me personally,” said fourth-year Helen*, “I feel like the portions don’t really make up for the price. It feels like they’re rationing.”
Why the Increase?
UCSC Dining’s price adjustments also come as a result of inflationary pressures, according to Prime. The cost of food items, transporting items to campus, and the raise in California’s minimum wage all contributed to the price jump.
Inflation is a nationwide issue: 2023 saw a 7.1 percent increase in price for restaurant-served food, and a 2.2 percent increase is forecasted for 2024. In California, prices for food in the restaurant category increased 6.5 percent as of September 2023.
Prime did not respond to City on a Hill Press’ additional email inquiries on the discrepancies between regionally set food prices and increased dining hall prices.
“Raising the cost felt like something that was uncalled for,” said Helen*. “I don’t think they gave me any news of raising the prices. It seems a little unprovoked.”
City on a Hill Press was unable to locate proof that UCSC Dining notified the student populace of the price changes before they were implemented.
“Everyone that I talked to was surprised by it.” Katrina Clugston said. “No one knew this would happen.”
Student Voices in Decision Making
Alisa Johnson-Vela, member of the Student Union Assembly (SUA) from 2021 to 2023, met with UCSC Dining throughout the decision process for this year’s dining hall prices. However, she says the SUA was not as involved as she would’ve liked.
“In every instance I met with the dining administration,” Johnson-Vela said. “I interpreted what they were saying as, ‘this is what we’re doing, and we’re doing it, and we’re informing you as a courtesy.’”
To include more student voices in making dining hall decisions, the SUA, along with representatives from the Dining Service Student Advisory Group, plan to meet monthly with Director Bill Prime. Meetings will address ways the dining administration can better support students.
Current SUA Vice President of Internal Affairs, Audrey Avelino expressed that it’s been difficult to arrange a meeting time with Prime.
Avelino and Johnson-Vela encourage students to explore UCSC and Santa Cruz city resources for affordable and accessible food options, such as Cowell Coffee Shop, Redwood Free Market, and Food Not Bombs.
Above all, Johnson-Vela wants students struggling to know they’re not alone.
“Don’t be ashamed to say ‘I need help,’” Johnson-Vela said. “Food is expensive and you need it to live.”
As students continue to line up at the dining halls, increased prices mean many are grappling with less viable options for accessible meals on campus.
“To eat regularly, having a reasonably priced meal is encouraging,” Katrina Clugston said. “It shouldn’t feel like a sacrifice in order to eat.”
Additional reporting by Kelly Zarate.