Sophomores in alternative housing opt out of campus meal plan

Hannah Catlin, News Editor

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If you want to go grocery shopping with Brian Zou ’22 you’re going to have to wake up early. To leave time for his friends and a rigorous academic schedule, Zou shops on Sunday mornings at 8 a.m.

Not that he minds. For Zou, it’s been motivation to get to bed early on the weekends — plus, he never worries about his errands conflicting with social plans.

“It’s a time that no one’s ever awake,” Zou said.

But what’s a sophomore doing grocery shopping at all? Macalester’s two-year residency requirement comes with an implied two-year stint on one of the college’s three residential meal plans. There are, of course, exceptions.

For students living in alternative housing, a meal plan is optional. From the language houses to the veggie co-op, sophomores like Zou are hitting grocery stores while their friends are going to Sunday brunch in Cafe Mac.

Zou lives in the Cultural House, one of the intentional living communities. For him, making his own food has been a touchstone of his Cultural House experience.

“It’s nothing official… but generally when we’re in the kitchen, a lot of us are cooking at the same time or meal prepping at the same time, and so we get to share a lot of those experiences together — making food together or tasting and eating each other’s food as well,” Zou said.

Often, Zou will make food he remembers from his childhood, a process that has helped him reconnect with his culture.

“Now, I have to do it all myself, so cooking for me is a way of stress relief but also a way to get in touch with my own culture,” Zou said. “Especially making other foods that remind me of home or dishes that I have to call home and ask my parents about.”

And Zou loves cooking. Even though he’s still on the commuter plan — 75 swipes for the semester — now, more than halfway through the term, he’s used less than 20.

“People will ask me to go out to eat and I’m like — you can come over and I can cook,” Zou said.

Zou switched because the commuter plan at $775 is significantly cheaper than a regular meal plan which costs $2,915.

Savings have been a huge advantage for Interfaith House resident Ammar Muhammad ’22.

“I think being off the meal plan is so much cheaper compared to being on the meal plan and I can’t stress that enough,” Muhammad said. “Especially if you’re struggling with finances at home — I am with my family — it makes it so much easier on you.”

Muhammad is not on a meal plan at all this semester — not even the commuter plan. While it’s been a financial relief, it has presented other challenges.

“At the moment, my cooking habits are really poor because I’m not a very good cook,” Muhammad said.

He’s been able to stick to the basics, though — stuff that’s “really, really, really easy to make.” In Muhammad’s kitchen, that means lots of bibimbap and tuna, spinach and alfredo pasta.

It’s a challenge that will provide advantages in the long run, though.

“It’s definitely going to make it easier to transition… [to] off-campus housing junior year and senior year,” Muhammad said. “I really just pushed myself into it and made it a challenge to myself.”

He’s also been able to find food in other places.

“Macalester makes it easy to find free food on this campus,” Muhammad said. “I can get meal swipes from first-years and sophomores any time I want, so I have those options too — not a lot of people utilize their meal plans to their full ability.”

In Muhammad’s friend group, shared swipes provide a meal and some valuable social time too. With most sophomores still getting the bulk of their meals from Bon Appétit, it can be tricky to schedule other times to hang out.

“Cafe Mac is a place where everybody meets each other,” Muhammad said. “At least with my social group, it’s been a lot more effort on both of our behalfs to meet up outside of that area.”

Veggie Co-op resident Serena Peterson ’22 partially agrees — it’s been some extra work to meet up outside of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center. However, for Peterson, it’s been a huge blessing in disguise.

“I found Cafe Mac to be really exhausting because I saw every single person I know every single time I went in there and it’s nice to be able to eat dinner — or any meal — relaxed,” Peterson said.

The Veggie Co-op, like the Interfaith House and Cultural House, is an intentional living community — this one centered around food.

Five nights a week, all 18 Co-op members will gather together for huge community meals prepared by two of the residents. Peterson said the kitchen is also often a gathering place where people will catch up while cooking or doing their homework.

Getting off the meal plan and living in this community environment has been a dream for Peterson.

“I found that my mental health has been a lot better being in an intentional space,” she said. “It’s just a really good community which is nice to come home to every day. It feels like a home.”

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