UM cafeteria refrain: Take my food -- please

Deadlines send students to fill their food trays

October 08, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Stand next to Lindsey Humphreys in the University of Maryland dining hall line and chances are you'll get a free meal.

"It doesn't matter who's around me, I just offer to buy them lunch," says the sophomore from Owings in Calvert County. "I have to get rid of money."

Welcome to the strange world of "focus dates," where meal plans operate like cell phone minutes - students must use some of their dining money before a deadline or lose it. There are five focus dates a semester at College Park; the next is today, when students must have $618 or less in their accounts.

That means that students above the limit are resorting to desperately generous behavior. Some buy complete strangers a cheeseburger and fries. Others purchase cakes and walk around their dorms, asking if anybody has a birthday. Students have been known to take whole trays of chocolate chip cookies, even if they don't like sweets very much.

"It seems ridiculous to go around saying, `Please, eat my cookies.' But it happens," said sophomore Caryn Heller.

In the late 1980s, the university didn't force students to use their money until the end of the semester. But there was such a run on items like cookies and bottled water that school officials were concerned that they would run out of staples, and some customers wouldn't be able to eat.

"Students would come in and buy out the serving line," said Patricia Higgins, the director of dining services. "That's not what a meal plan is for."

Three-week plan

The university switched to a plan where students had to use a certain amount of money every two weeks, then adopted a three-week plan.

Virtually every school in the nation enforces some type of use-it-or-lose-it deadline. Dining services must at least break even, and students are not allowed to carry meal plan balances over from semester to semester. The system is similar to traditional college meal plans of the past, where students would purchase 15 or 21 meals a week and the meals would not roll over.

Students are known to complain about food even under the best of circumstances, but criticism from some University of Maryland students has become so pointed that administrators are considering changing the program and have done student surveys to explore other alternatives.

School officials say that students lose, on average, about $4 per focus date. But that's only after many go on a spending binge, blowing more than $15 at a time.

Common scenario

Such behavior is common throughout the country, experts say. "How can you blame them? They're just trying to spend their money," said David Rood, a spokesman for the National Association of College Auxiliary Services in Charlottesville, Va.

Under the current system at College Park, most students start each semester with $986, otherwise known as 986 "resident points."

Students can use the money at any of the school's dining halls or at Adele's, a formal restaurant on campus. Every three weeks students must use approximately $200, until they have spent down to zero when the semester ends Dec. 18.

About 7,000 students have meal plans, school officials say. Only freshmen and sophomores living in dorms are required to have them.

Many students struggle to ration their money. Robyn Sennet, a freshman from Sharon, Mass., and her roommate, Sarah Koelbl of Eldersburg, said yesterday they eat three meals a day in the dining hall. But each had nearly $50 to blow by today. "We always joke about how much we eat, so I don't understand how it happened," Sennet said.

Piling on the food

Both have been trying to burn their dollars by increasing the size of their meals. For example, Sennet yesterday bought M&M cookies, noodles and chicken, a bagel, and a large salad. As she walked to an open table, her tray wobbled dangerously, especially because she had also purchased three bottled waters.

"I don't normally drink it, but it's more expensive than the regular water," she explained.

Both Sennet and Koelbl also have been ordering some meals to go, which cost an additional 25 cents. Sennet even bought a cake for another student's birthday.

Since dining hall food is meant to be affordable, spending large amounts of money there isn't easy. Sennet's mountain of food cost her $10.73. "I'll have to go back for more," she said with a sigh.

Mooching meals

Like clever scavengers, students without meal plans often gravitate toward the dining hall around focus dates. Shortly before noon yesterday, Joseph Scovitch, a senior who doesn't have a meal plan, made a beeline toward sophomore Kara Hoffman.

"I know she has a meal plan," he said, sitting down with an enchilada that Hoffman bought him.

Scovitch said he typically manages to get 10 free meals a semester. "I count down to focus dates because I know all of my friends will need to get rid of points," he said.

Though Hoffman rolled her eyes, she said she didn't mind buying Scovitch food. The two are both from Hagerstown and have known each other for years. And if Hoffman didn't buy something for Scovitch, her money would "just go to waste," she said.

Some students don't limit their mooching to friends.

"Sometimes, people you don't even know ask," said Lainie Scudder, a sophomore from Columbia. "It doesn't take me aback. Actually, I'd buy it for them."

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