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Inadequate advertising and value result in lack of hype for meal swipe coupons

(Juliette Le Saint/Daily Bruin)

By Sandra Wenceslao

Nov. 1, 2018 11:13 p.m.

Dorm coupons are here to save the day and your appetite.

If you consider $3.45 a saving, that is.

Students with a UCLA Dining Services meal plan have the option to exchange a meal swipe for a meal coupon that can be used at various on-campus restaurants through the Meal Numeration Coupon Program. It’s not a new program: Students have had this option for more than 30 years. The program allows students to use their prepaid meal plan swipes at on-campus restaurants, rather than having to go back up to the Hill to get food. All students have to do is exchange a swipe for a coupon at the front desk of a residence hall.

Starting this school year, the value of the coupon increased by $1 from $2.45.

“(Associated Students) UCLA areas added an additional $.60 on the $2.85 value of the coupon which represents its current raw food costs per person for a total of $3.45, said Charles Wilcots, associate director of UCLA Dining Services, in an email statement.

Students get less than half the worth of their swipes with these coupons. On the Hill, meal swipes are valued somewhere between $9.75 and $12.25. Many students also aren’t using the program because there’s no visibility of the service.

The dorm coupons program needs to be reinvented in order to better accommodate students’ needs. ASUCLA and UCLA Dining must better address the discrepancy between the value of the meal swipe on the Hill and the value of a coupon on campus by putting up more money and giving students their money’s worth. The two also need to improve their advertising tactics in order to encourage students to justify the use of such a program.

The dorm coupons are advertised through signs at the registers of ASUCLA-operated restaurants, said Cindy Bolton, ASUCLA food service director. Digital screens around Ackerman Union periodically have slides promoting the program as well.

But students can’t use what they don’t know about. Signs at registers aren’t enough to get them invested in the program. Once Bruins are at the counter, they’re ready to pay and move on. Advertising there obviously doesn’t catch their eye.

For example, Valerie Salgado, a third-year sociology student who lived on campus her first two years at UCLA, had no idea of the Meal Numeration Coupon Program. She often found herself not eating on the Hill during the day and waiting until later to use her swipes for a meal.

“I remember (it being) super inconvenient to have a class and a small gap, then to go all the way to the Hill to go get food and get in line,” Salgado said. “It’s not enough time to get food and eat and make it back to class.”

That’s understandable given ASUCLA and UCLA Dining’s poor publicity campaign, and how unflattering the coupon value even is.

A value of $3.45 leaves students wasting their money. While it effectively lets students use swipes on campus, the price appointed to the coupons doesn’t justify exchanging a meal swipe for it. A meal swipe allows students to enjoy the wonders of all-you-can-eat dining halls while a coupon might not even get you a full meal.

More value means more users. Increasing the worth of the coupon would encourage students to make use of them. A report from the first 30 days of fall quarter this year and last year shows that the usage has doubled from about 20 to 28 users, to 41, Bolton said.

But usage is still low and the recent increase could be attributed to dining hall workers going on strike and a recent Daily Bruin article shining light onto the program.

And students who’ve used it outside of last week have done so due to difficult circumstances regarding their schedules. Nadine Guzman-Lopez, a third-year American literature and culture student, said she uses vouchers because class, work and meetings can leave her on campus until late at night most days of the week.

“I have no time to run up to the Hill, wait for my food and run back down or run to work,” Guzman-Lopez said.

She added she found coupons most useful during the strike, but doesn’t see them being convenient or fair.

Certainly, it might be difficult for ASUCLA and UCLA Dining to beef up the coupon program. But the university shouldn’t offer a service to students that literally takes money away from them in exchange for almost nothing. Yes, it does offer students something, but it’s definitely not a solution.

The truth is, the Meal Numeration Coupon Program has multiple flaws. It lacks visibility on campus and takes away from the worth of students’ swipes. Even if students are aware of the service, and are in dire need of it, they’ll end up losing money.

Just try to find a student who thinks a drink from Northern Lights compares to the all-you-can-eat dining at De Neve.

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Sandra Wenceslao | Opinion columnist
Sandra Wenceslao is an Opinion columnist.
Sandra Wenceslao is an Opinion columnist.
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