First year students' meal plans and dining hall use: differences by food insecurity, and similarities among roommates

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Background In the United States (US), first-year university students typically live on campus and purchase a meal plan. In general, meal plans allow the student a set number of meals

Background In the United States (US), first-year university students typically live on campus and purchase a meal plan. In general, meal plans allow the student a set number of meals per week or semester, or unlimited meals. Understanding how students’ use their meal plan, and barriers and facilitators to meal plan use, may help decrease nutrition-related issues.

Methods First-year students’ meal plan and residence information was provided by a large, public, southwestern university for the 2015-2016 academic year. A subset of students (n=619) self-reported their food security status. Logistic generalized estimating equations (GEEs) were used to determine if meal plan purchase and use were associated with food insecurity. Linear GEEs were used to examine several potential reasons for lower meal plan use. Logistic and Linear GEEs were used to determine similarities in meal plan purchase and use for a total of 599 roommate pairs (n=1186 students), and 557 floormates.

Results Students did not use all of the meals available to them; 7% of students did not use their meal plan for an entire month. After controlling for socioeconomic factors, compared to students on unlimited meal plans, students on the cheapest meal plan were more likely to report food insecurity (OR=2.2, 95% CI=1.2, 4.1). In Fall, 26% of students on unlimited meal plans reported food insecurity. Students on the 180 meals/semester meal plan who used fewer meals were more likely to report food insecurity (OR=0.9, 95% CI=0.8, 1.0); after gender stratification this was only evident for males. Students’ meal plan use was lower if the student worked a job (β=-1.3, 95% CI=-2.3, -0.3) and higher when their roommate used their meal plan frequently (β=0.09, 99% CI=0.04, 0.14). Roommates on the same meal plan (OR=1.56, 99% CI=1.28, 1.89) were more likely to use their meals together.

Discussion This study suggests that determining why students are not using their meal plan may be key to minimizing the prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses, and that strategic roommate assignments may result in students’ using their meal plan more frequently. Students’ meal plan information provides objective insights into students’ university transition.