By Andrew Miller ’15

Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014

Screenshot of pre-meal costs with AC Dollars vs the meal plan (2014)It’s usually cheaper to buy in bulk. Not so with the Amherst College Meal Plan. For example, if you eat at Val twice a day on the meal plan and aren’t on campus during interterm or spring break, you pay $13.04 per meal.

Granted, most students probably swipe into Val more than twice per day on average. But the per-meal cost of the meal plan for any reasonable eating schedule (i.e. one that assumes no more than four Val meals daily) is higher than the per-meal cost of eating the same number of meals at Val and paying with AC Dollars: paying for the same access to Val with AC Dollars is cheaper than being on the meal plan.

Possibly much cheaper. If you eat at Val three times daily and pay with AC Dollars, your per-meal cost is four dollars (three for breakfast, four for lunch, five for dinner). But if you eat at Val three times daily on the meal plan and aren’t on campus for interterm or spring break, you pay $8.69 per meal—that’s the $2,790 cost of the meal-plan spread over 321 meals. This is more than twice what you’d pay using AC Dollars. (If you want to make a more personal calculation, see the chart on the right.)

My Amherst account was credited with $2,212 when I was removed from the meal plan a few weeks into the semester, after which I spent a little over $1000 on food. So I saved more than I spent on food last semester.

This semester I’ve eaten at least once a day at Val, but last semester I ate almost all of my meals either in Tyler or on campus after preparing them in Tyler. Preparing my own meals tended to be even cheaper than paying for Val with AC Dollars. (Note: I eat a lot of couscous, which is about twenty cents per serving. Other note: I’m not considering the time I spent preparing my food, but I figure it’s offset by the time I would have lost “Val sitting.”) There were five weeks during which I spent around fifty dollars on food. At $8.69 per meal, the weekly cost of the meal plan (21 meals) is $182.49, so during these weeks I spent just 27 percent of what I would have paid on the meal plan.

But let’s say you can’t imagine subsisting on couscous. (Note: I only eat couscous 4-5 times a week. Tasty foods not available at Val that I eat a lot of include blackberries, walnuts, avocados, goat cheese, dark chocolate, and Trader Joe’s crunchy peanut butter. And I’m allowed to cook with olive oil.) There are very, very few items at Big Y (or Whole Foods, for that matter) that fall outside of a 182 dollar-a-week, one-mouth-to-feed budget. If you have the patience to cook it, you can almost certainly afford it. If you don’t have the patience to cook it (or anything), you can eat in town. I haven’t thought through a full Town of Amherst Meal Plan, but my guess is that you can spend less than $182 weekly eating every meal in town if you make heavy use of White Hut, Antonio’s, and the Miss Saigon and Crazy Noodles lunch specials.

That might be bad for your health. As I see it, the salient benefit of being off the meal plan with respect to eating in town is that eating out becomes (almost) guilt-free. I’m much more willing to eat at Lone Wolf or High Horse given that I’m saving money relative to a 182 dollar-a-week reference point (even if that willingness is somewhat unreasonable since my alternative to eating out isn’t eating on the meal plan— it’s spending five dollars to eat at Val or three dollars to cook for myself). That said, I’ve eaten at Lone Wolf and High Horse a total of three times since getting off the meal plan in August.

I don’t know the rationale behind the price of the meal plan, nor have I asked anyone who would know. That’s because I’m lazy, not because I’m not curious. That the AC Dollars price of Val is so low suggests that all $2790 don’t go toward providing food, but then again, maybe some of the $2790 subsidizes students whose meal plan is paid for by Amherst. Like I said, I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate. But I wouldn’t mind an explanation.