Robots began delivering food this week to students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a service provided through their meal plan, that may soon spread to other campuses across the country.
Meanwhile, nearly two million college students are going hungry and struggling to access resources that might be able to help them, according to a government report published earlier this month.
Delivery is just one of the many meal options George Mason University offers students, including low-cost plans and campus eateries offering meals for $5.75.
The juxtaposition of these announcements, just weeks apart, illustrate a tension unfolding at universities across the country. On the one hand, activists are pushing colleges — and the companies they work with — to better serve students from all economic backgrounds. At the same time, a drive for prestige and revenue amid a challenging funding environment means that schools are also facing pressure to provide innovative amenities with the potential to draw students.
Autonomous robots delivering food to some students, while others struggle with food insecurity is “a perfect visual” to illustrate some of the “strange dynamics on many college campuses,” said Kevin McClure, a higher-education professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
“You’ve got these amazing services and all sorts of different dining options and then you’ve also got a lot of students who frankly can’t afford those options,” said McClure, who studies amenities at universities. “In some cases, you’ve got students who can’t afford them and the only way they’re affording them is through student loans.”
What’s behind that meal plan
Debate has raged in the past several years over the factors contributing to rising college costs and growing student debt. Some have blamed student demand for amenities like lazy rivers (a kind of water park), luxury dorms or locally-sourced food compatible with a variety of diets. Others note that declining state and federal funding has made even the most basic college experience — courses at a community college for example — unaffordable for low-income students.
Meanwhile, nearly two million college students are going hungry and struggling to access resources that might be able to help them.
The factors that contribute to what ends up on a college student’s meal tray are complicated. Colleges typically contract with a private company to operate their dining services at a price that is often cheaper than if the college ran the services themselves. In some cases, as a 2015 New York Times report found, such dining deals can bring in revenue with companies pledging tens of millions of dollars the schools use to build new facilities or enhance academic programs.
In order to win schools’ business, the companies often race to provide what they believe are at the cutting edge of students’ preferences, McClure said. For some students, particularly those from wealthier backgrounds, varied and upscale dining options can be a draw. That’s why schools have added dining options like small shareable plates and customizable meals in recent years. A need to cater to those students and lure their tuition dollars amid declining state funding has transformed campuses and college towns at state schools across the country, McClure said.
How fancy amenities can make students feel excluded
But his research, which includes focus group interviews with students, indicates that for those who struggle to afford college, pricey amenities can actually make them feel out of place. Students who struggled to afford college would actually avoid spaces that might entice them to spend money, like a student union filled with fast food eateries, he found.
“Things like that can really play a big role in whether a student perceives a campus climate as being supportive of their efforts to afford college,” McClure said.
A drive for prestige and revenue amid a challenging funding environment means that schools are also facing pressure to draw students.
At George Mason University, officials recognize that not all students can afford to take advantage of robot-delivered meals, and work to provide them with affordable options, said Mark Kraner, the executive director of campus retail operations at the school. At the same time, they also want to cater to the tastes of students whose “mom and dad have taken them to three, four-star restaurants,” he said.
Kraner describes the campus as “a small town of 40,000” with similarly diverse needs. “You’re going to have the people that can and want delivery services and, yes, we have the other side of that equation, the food insecure,” he said.
Sodexo, a company that provides dining services at George Mason University, originally approached the school about the robot delivery service. Kraner said he was eager to participate, in part because students were already ordering delivery through outside services. “We don’t have much control over that,” he said, adding the school wanted to provide its own option.
GMU also has a food pantry for hungry students
The idea to offer students the chance to have their food delivered by robots “came naturally,” said Jeffrey McKinley, the district manager at George Mason University for Sodexo. The robot delivers the food within 15 minutes for a fee of $1.99, which students can pay through their meal plan.
To use the service, GMU students and staff download the delivery app from Starship Technologies, the company that created the robots, and place their order from Blaze Pizza, Starbucks SBUX, +1.59% Dunkin’ DNKN, +2.32% or 2nd Stop, a campus grocery store, and provide their location.
Some student advocates say declining state and federal funding has made even the most basic college experience unaffordable for low-income students.
Delivery is just one of the many meal options the school offers its students, including some low-cost plans and campus eateries offering meals for as little as $5.75, Kraner said. For students who truly can’t afford food, there’s a campus food pantry, which recently received a $1,000 donation from Sodexo. The company will also provide meal vouchers to struggling students.
Still, the contrast between the challenges students face affording food and a robot roaming campus with delivery pizza isn’t lost on advocates like Eddy Conroy, a senior practitioner-researcher at Philadelphia-based Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
While he’s sympathetic to the challenges schools face bringing in revenue and catering to different constituencies, he’d still like to see colleges do more to help students struggling with food insecurity.
His organization wants schools to help students access public benefits. At some schools, students struggle to access food stamps or other benefits for which they might qualify because of confusion over eligibility. “Things like food pantries, they’re great, but nobody is going to fix food insecurity with a food pantry,” Conroy said.
Students and student advocates are demanding more comprehensive solutions for those who struggle to afford food.
“Higher education is expensive and financial-aid packages don’t always help students with access to food,” said Damiana Dendy, the head of the Zero Hunger Campaign at consumer advocacy organization, U.S. PIRG. “We are a nation that is abundant in food and that doesn’t change on campuses, and yet students are still going hungry. It makes no sense.”
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