College Students Milk Their Meal Plans In Some Pretty Sneaky Ways

From disguises to expert sneakery, students wring every last cent out of their campus meal plans.

When I was in college, chocolate soft serve was my university dining hall's only redeemable food option. After a few weeks spent choking down soggy fries and stale cereal, my friends and I developed a Robin Hood–style distribution plan to bring soft serve to the masses. Those of us with on-campus meal plans were charged by the "swipe," with each swipe into the cafeteria counting as one meal on our campus-issued dining hall cards. Not long into my freshman year, we learned to swipe our cards, eat our food, and then fill three or four large styrofoam soda cups with soft serve. We'd sneak the soft serve back to our friends who didn't have meal plans and/or keep them for ourselves as they melted into rudimentary milkshakes in our dorm rooms. It was a bulletproof system.

Now, with tailgate season around the corner, college kids are flocking back to campuses. We here at The Takeout decided to embrace the occasion to explore how today's kiddos are hacking their meal plans. Turns out, they're way savvier than me and my soft-serve-hoarding friends. Read on to hear their tactics, from dastardly disguises to catlike heists.

"My roommate and I both live out [note: this means they've moved out of their fraternity house and into an off-campus apartment], but we're still on the meal plan. So I'll go up to the chef and say I'm getting a plate for my roommate, and then just eat both of them. He does the same. I also sometimes flip my hat around and wear a different COVID mask to try to get seconds. Very intricate systems." —Thomas, University of Kansas; Lawrence, KS

"I used to [swipe in] for groceries. I would [swipe] for milk, cookies, chips—all that good stuff! I also know of someone who would go to the plastic utensils section and grab, like, 20 forks, knives, and spoons for the week. Another one of my friends would take cookies from the dining hall, and it got to the point where he'd take the entire tray. I don't know if you're allowed to say that." —Kayla, James Madison University; Harrisonburg, VA

"The greatest hack me and my friends would do with meal plans is sneak each other into dining halls. One of my friends had a meal plan, and the rest of us didn't. The one with the meal plan would swipe in and then the rest of us would stand at the emergency exit and they would let us in one by one. One time we almost got caught, and a worker came up to us and asked if we swiped in. We just played dumb and said yes." —Tori, James Madison University; Harrisonburg, VA

"My roommates and I would take like half a gallon of milk jug and fill it with lemonade or soda; we do that even with our water bottles. Unfortunately the meal plans—at least at my school—are a ripoff. They're just good for convenience. Another option is getting a to-go container and eating one meal [in the cafeteria], then bringing back the container with food [for another meal] while only paying for one swipe. All these techniques are definitely looked down upon, but screw it, 'cause they're overcharging for medium quality food." —Will, Catholic University of America; Washington, D.C.