Finding and affording healthful food on the Portland State campus can be a huge challenge. While there are many food options from which to choose, from the myriad restaurants and food carts to the PSU meal plan, the actual cost in time and money can feel impossibly hard to maneuver. So where is the best value for your healthful food dollar?
The PSU meal plan: a good deal?
Whether or not the PSU meal plan will be a good deal for you is largely a question of whether or not you will be on campus or will have time between classes while the major food venues (Victor’s at Ondine and the Viking Café in the Smith Memorial Student Union) are open. If you do not live on or near campus, the meal plan is likely not a very cost-effective option.
For freshmen living in dorms the meal plan is mandatory, and, as with most things mandated by an institution, a calculated waste of your money in the name of some lauded public good (in this case, health). Yet even if the goal of making sure everyone eats is a great one, the execution is sometimes questionable. Because of rigid class schedules, the mandatory meal plan might leave you more hungry than if you were given the option to make your own food choices. If Victor’s is only open for lunch during times you have a class, then it looks like you will be missing lunch a lot.
This timing problem might be reason enough to stick with the bare minimum meal plan and explore other options. If you have the ability to schedule classes around times Victor’s is open, then it is a good option with both healthful and indulgent choices on par with any other institutional cafeteria.
Meal plans come in multiple shapes and sizes. There’s the economy which gives you 10 meals per week at Victor’s and zero dining dollars to spend at the Viking Café. The 10 plan gives you 10 meals per week at Victor’s and $300 dining dollars. The 15 plan gets you 15 meals per week at Victor’s and $100 dining dollars, and the all-access plan gets you unlimited meals at Victor’s and $50 dining dollars per term. Some of these options give you more meals eaten at Victor’s every week, while some give you more dollars to spend at the Viking Café.
Great, peachy and wonderful, but these numbers don’t mean anything at all. How much will you be paying per meal with these plans? Assuming a 10-week term and three square meals a day, you will be paying $5.60 per meal for the unlimited plan, the 15 plan is $8.14 per meal, the 10 plan is $11.64 per meal and the economy plan is $9.05 per meal.
So when you really get down to it, the best value in meal plans depends on where you eat most. If you find yourself eating at Victor’s many times per week and not much at the Viking Café, then the unlimited plan is right up your alley. If you eat at the Viking Café most often, the 10 plan would be a better value.
If you live in the dorms and are forced to use a meal plan, yet are unable to get food at Victor’s consistently due to class scheduling conflicts, then you might have to purchase food from one of the many non-PSU eating establishments even though you paid for a meal plan. This seems to be a pretty significant problem that has not been dealt with by the administration, to my knowledge.
If you are a student at PSU and you cannot afford food, if the mandatory meal plan is creating unsustainable financial burdens for you, or if your food plan doesn’t meet your nutritional needs, there are at least a couple options to pursue. The most immediate option is the Associated Students of PSU’s food pantry. Located in SMSU room 325, the pantry is a place where any student in need of food can freely get that need met. For a more long-term solution, students can apply for Oregon Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
What about eating out or making my own food?
By going to one of the many food establishments around campus besides those offered by PSU, one could be expected to pay anywhere between $5 and $10 a meal. The total cost for eating out would be between $1,050 and $2,100 for a term, and, unlike with Victor’s, you won’t have to worry about going during particular mealtimes (except closing times).
Being able to make mindful purchases and budget for individual meals is the advantage here, and if one is careful it is possible to save some money over the cost of a meal plan (granted it isn’t already a mandatory addition to your tuition costs). There is also a much lower chance of money being wasted on missed meals that have been prepaid. These costs are only approximations as few people, if any, buy all of their meals out.
The other option is to prepare your own food. The grocery store that is closest to campus is Safeway on Southwest 10th Avenue and Jefferson Street. For even fresher produce and handmade foodstuffs, PSU hosts the Portland Farmers Market every Saturday in the Park Blocks. They also give out lots and lots of samples, have farm-to-table prices, and even if you aren’t hungry it makes for a fun outing.
What about late night food?
Around campus there aren’t many places from which to get food after 10 p.m. If you are under 21, then the only place that is open all night that is a convenient walk from campus is the Subway next to Rogue Hall. If you are over 21, then you can find food, albeit typically rather indulgent food, at the various bars around campus: Rogue Hall, Pizza Schmizza, The Cheerful Tortoise or First National Taphouse. Other than those places, you might have to make a quick trek over to Safeway to pick up some groceries.
The food needs for a student body of 30,000 are enormous and PSU has likely done their best to make sure that everyone gets the nutrition that they need in order to produce good work. In some cases the meal plan might be a drain of financial resources without much benefit due to logistical difficulties, and this is something that the PSU administration should really address— especially if they are going to make it mandatory for students to purchase. Thankfully, even if the meal plan doesn’t fit your needs there are other options, both subsidized and not.