Resident assistants (RAs) face food insecurity with a smaller meal plan, fewer paid hours this semester

Hannah Gooch Housing reporter Lauryn Oglesby Student politics reporter

RAs are on the Flash 100 meal plan, which includes 100 swipes and $500 in declining balance. This 

breaks down to approximately $6 to spend of their declining balance and one swipe per day. Paid hours were cut from 28 to 20 this semester as well.

In light of the complaints following the meal plan for this semester, Residence Services sent out an email to RAs Nov. 21 presenting two additional meal plan options for next semester. 

The new meal plan options will offer the RA Two-A-Day plan and the RA Unlimited plan in addition to the Flash 100 block already offered this semester. The RA Two-A-Day plan includes two meal swipes per day with a $200 declining balance, while the RA Unlimited plan provides $50 in declining balance with an unlimited number of swipes.

“A lot of people are out of declining balance already,” said sophomore organizational communication major and RA Sarah Bihn.

Bihn has seen the effect of the meal plan firsthand. Since RAs have 100 swipes for the semester, she said some RAs will purchase a meal with a takeout container and then use the same container to pack a second meal, all within the use of a single swipe. 

Bihn offered to pay for meals for her fellow RAs that are struggling to afford food. Bihn is a mid-semester RA, so she uses the leftover declining balance from her previous meal plan. 

Graduate assistants (GAs) and resident hall directors (RHDs) have also offered to help struggling RAs.

“Some of our RHD’s solutions for us if we needed food were to get another job, take out a loan or go to a food pantry,” Bihn said.

The system of communication with residence services consists of RHDs and GAs conveying messages from RAs to the higher administration. Kiara Carter, junior economics major and RA in Leebrick Hall, finds herself on the lower tier of the resident services chain of command, despite holding a valuable position in undergraduate student affairs.

“RAs can affect retention in ways that the university just can’t,” Carter said. “Sometimes professors don’t see a student struggling until it is too late. So for students that may not be as independent, I think that RAs are really important for them.” 

Kevin Mowers, director of student life, understands the significance of the RA position.

“To live and work in the same space as your students that you care about and have relationships with is challenging, but it’s also really important to addressing community issues and making sure people have a positive experience,” Mowers said. “We want 

to make sure that [the RAs] are fairly compensated with the work that they do for us.”

The nutritional aspect

Coordinator for the Center of Nutrition’s Outreach Tanya Falcone defines food insecurity as someone who lacks the financial means to acquire food or lacks the access to food. 

“Food insecurity is already a huge thing here, more than people think,” sophomore political science major and Director of Student Involvement for USG Kaelee Dingey said. “[The RAs] probably don’t want to speak up about it. They’re embarrassed that they work a job and can’t even afford to get food some days.”

Falcone said some students may rely on certain benefits of the RA position to get by. 

“For some people, getting that RA position is a way to get out of food insecurity. College is a way for them to temporarily get out of that, and in order to get the education they need,” Falcone said. “By reducing that and by creating this perpetual food insecurity, for some people it impacts them so much more than we can even think.”

Mowers said he expects RAs to use the stipend as support for the meal plan.

“What we told them at the start of the semester is that, if you are concerned about meal plans, like any student can, you can add to the meal plan, you can change the meal plan, do whatever you need to do with it,” he said. “That’s what we’re providing them in that compensation.”

The option to add to the meal plan comes out of the student’s pockets. RAs would have to budget the $45 biweekly stipend into their meal plan as declining balance or Flashcash.

The stipend proves to be too little for some students to afford food in addition to their monthly expenses such as gas.

“I’ve seen people develop food phobias from being food insecure and reducing their intake,” Falcone said. “If you go to McDonald’s, on the dollar menu, they can get five items vs. buying a very limited amount of fruit. It can cause people to become absolutely petrified of spending money on foods that are more expensive.”

Falcone also notes lower quality food has been associated with lower grades in 

school, lack of concentration and a 

higher chance of skipping classes.

Dingey’s boyfriend is an RA with 

dietary restrictions. He cannot eat at most dining halls on campus.

“He can’t really use his swipes. So, he basically lives off that $500,” Dingey said.

Dingey’s boyfriend had to get a second job to make ends meet, but can only work an additional eight hours on campus. He also had to get approval from his RHD to get a second job.

RAs must also seek permission from RHDs to leave campus on weekends. Many RAs had to fill the remaining eight employment hours with an on-campus job because of the difficulty in finding off-campus jobs that fit their schedules.

“They don’t like any kind of conflicts, which is weird when they don’t pay them enough to live,” Dingey said.

Mowers, however, sees secondary jobs as an opportunity for RAs to acclimate themselves into other leadership roles.

“I didn’t want students to have to choose between an RA position and another student leadership position anymore. I want staff members to be able to have options and to work other jobs, to have other experiences in which they were compensated,” Mowers said.

Responding to complaints

Mowers is aware of RA complaints following a recent survey sent out by Residence Services’ inclusion team.

“I take concerns like this seriously and I want to make sure we’re doing all that we can … to make sure they have a good experience and that they have the resources on campus just like any other student,” Mowers said.

Mowers met with other members of Residence Services, including Executive Director Jill Jenkins and Dining Services, to discuss what can be done moving forward.

Jenkins declined to comment and referred questions to Mowers. 

“Any upgrade whatsoever is a great step into the right direction,” Taylor said of the update.

In the Nov. 21 email sent out by Jenkins on behalf of Residence Services, Jenkins wrote:

“I want to use this email to remind everyone that the meal plan is not intended to cover all of your meals. It is a piece of your compensation designated as a meal plan supplement. That said, I am confident these options will have a choice that gets everyone closer to meeting their individual needs.”

The comment annoyed some RAs, including Bihn.

“If you can’t really work a second job as an RA, how are they supposed to cover the meals that the meal plan doesn’t cover?” Bihn said.

Falcone is unimpressed with the meal plan as it stands for the remainder of the semester.

“Looking at a university doing that to students is absolutely appalling because we’re in an educational institution where we’re supposed to promote education, we’re supposed to do everything we can for them to succeed, and yet they’ve done something that is knowingly going to hinder them,” Falcone said.

Carter plans to reapply for the position next semester despite her frustration with Residence Services.

“I think I should keep going, just because the circumstances aren’t where I desire for them to be, doesn’t mean I can’t voice them for future RAs,” Carter said.

Undergraduate Student Government wants to create change.

Undergraduate Student Government (USG) is working closely with Residence Services to combat the RA food insecurity as a result of the change in hours. 

Dingey worked with Brandon Taylor, senator for Residence Services, to fix the issue.

“A lot of things did change this year and I think it kind of just caught everyone off guard,” Dingey said. “I don’t think we have a bad program. I think we have room for improvement.”

Both Dingey and Taylor researched the RA programs at schools similar to Kent State to get an idea of what is working at other universities.

RAs at Western Michigan University have the “Gold Plan,” which is comparable to Kent State’s Blue Plan. The Gold Plan offers unlimited access to dining halls and $50 in declining balance.

“If schools such as Ohio State have better meal plan compensation than our RAs, why wouldn’t we?” Taylor said.

Some RAs such as Bihn are frustrated with the responses they received from Resident Services.

“Every time you try to complain to the head of Residence Services, they’re like ‘RAs are the highest compensated employees on campus,’” Bihn said.

With a $45 stipend every two weeks, RAs earn $3.21 per day, not including room and board. Spending $60 on gas each month, or $30 biweekly, leaves only $30 per month leftover for expenses such as groceries, phone bills and car insurance. The stipend totals to around $400 for the entire semester. Last semester, RAs earned $80 biweekly totaling to around $600. 

The compensation became a flat rate for each RA rather than dependent upon the dorm room.

“You’re definitely working more than 20 hours, but I think, in general, we should definitely be paid more than we are now,” Carter said.

Mowers said the compensation and hour changes for RAs sparked the switch from the Blue Plan with unlimited swipes and $100 declining balance to the Flash 100 block.

“We tried to find a meal plan that was in line with the voice of what we heard and, at the time, our staff told us that they wanted to see a declining balance, so we had to match the meal plan with what compensation would be equitable with the change [in] hours.”

USG was told it was a budget cut that changed the meal plan and stipend.

“We have been told continually that ‘It’s a budget cut. It’s what we had to do, it’s a budget cut.’ Dingey said. “It’s just how they cover it up almost every single time. They don’t really give much more than that.”

The budget is posted online but was difficult for USG to find. 

After examining the budget, Taylor concluded the housing revenue dropped because of low enrollment rates. He hopes this solution will only be temporary.

Now Dingey would like to know why the budget was cut where it was and if there were other places it could have been cut.

“Why did it have to be human life and the RAs’ ability to eat?” Dingey said.

Contact Hannah Gooch at [email protected]

Contact Lauryn Oglesby at [email protected]