William & Mary

Extraordinary Circumstances: Holistically Assessing a Meal Plan Petition

This article originally appeared in Campus Dining Today, Fall/Winter 2017 

Every diet is unique. Whether you drink black coffee in the morning, fruit that is harvested locally, or adhere to a strict “fast food diet”, your diet is as unique as the color of your eyes or your binge-watching preferences. Diets can get particularly complex when attempting to assess which elements of a person’s prescribed diet falls beyond what a university-sponsored dining program can provide, and what additional support a student may need to be successful. For William & Mary, the Meal Plan Petition Committee has worked diligently to develop a transparent and verifiable way to review requests from students who feel as though their dietary needs cannot be met by W&M Dining Services.

The 4,500 residential undergraduate students at William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA) are required to select a meal plan based on their “social class”, or number of years after college entry. However, students with dietary needs beyond what W&M Dining can accommodate are able to request an exemption, or reduction, to the meal plan requirement. Typically, these requests fall into one of three categories: Medical, Financial or Religious. It is the student’s responsibility to provide supporting documentation and to “build their case” as to why an exemption should be grated. Historically, the Meal Plan Petition Committee has struggled with inconsistent documentation, subject-matter fluency and ‘loopholes’ but after taking a deep-dive of the process, the Auxiliary Services Assistant Director for Business Operations, along with the Campus Dietitian, identified three areas on campus better suited to review the documentation presented with each petition while better identifying potentially at-risk students. “Realizing we were not experts in the fields of financial need, medical conditions, or religion, we needed to find these subject matter experts in departments on campus that could help us better evaluate these cases,” said Anna Coy, the Assistant Director for Business Operations.

Students filing a Medical petition must provide a medical diagnosis outlining their medically prescriptive diet, which is reviewed by the Medical Review Committee (MRC). The MRC comprises of physicians, therapists, and other health professionals that review student health-related requests, and have the tools to handle secure and sensitive documentation. In conjunction with the medical documentation review, the student is required to meet with the Campus Dietitian, and depending on the severity of the restriction, an Executive Chef to determine if their accommodations can be met. During this consultation, the Campus Dietitian discusses the students prescribed dietary need, and reviews it in conjunction with available menus to determine if an accommodation is possible.  If an accommodation is possible, the details are outlined in writing and a copy given to the student for their records. A final decision is then made by the Campus Dietitian in consultation with the MRC review, and communicated to the student.

“Having a restricted diet is very complicated, but luckily the meal plan petition through William & Mary is a very direct, easy petition to complete. Meeting with a dietitian was helpful because it connected me with a person who could take my very specific dietary needs into consideration when it came to evaluate the petition,” said one student who met with the Campus Dietitian as part of the Meal Plan Petition process.

Financial petitions are reviewed by Financial Aid, which conducts a comprehensive summary of the students’ financial need utilizing the financial records on file with the school. Based on this review, Financial Aid makes a recommendation based on the situation as to whether there is an extraordinary circumstance, and in some situations, have offered additional financial aid to the student. If the student does not have a file with the Office of Financial Aid, they must provide detailed financial records demonstrating an extraordinary or recent circumstance that has affected their financial status.

Religious petitions are reviewed by the Center for Student Diversity who is best equipped to understand a student’s dietary need based on their religious affiliations. This process is much more fluid than medical or financial petitions because religious requirements can be quite individualistic. For instance, William & Mary Dining is able to support a vegetarian or vegan diet, but is unable to support a halal or kosher diet. This is where Student Diversity is best able to assess the student’s dietary needs from their faith perspective. Then in a collaborative effort with the Campus Dietitian, is able to determine if the diet can be accommodated. Also taken into consideration is the students ability to shop and prepare food for themselves and if they are able to support a healthy or balanced diet outside of the meal plan.

mealplanpetitioninfographic_4.pdfThe new process was launched in 2016 and has impacted the Meal Plan Petition process in three main ways.

  1. Involving these key areas on campus has created a greater sense of autonomy in the meal plan program as well as created an opportunity to educate others about the abilities of Dining Services.
  2. The standardized petition has allowed the Meal Plan Petition Committee to establish a consistent set of guidelines and policies that are followed across campus, resulting in a more impartial review. It has also allowed Auxiliary Services to more accurately assess trends that can initiate change such as allowing students living in facilities with full kitchens (apartment-style living) to have a wider variety of meal plan options versus students in traditional residence halls.
  3. The new process has allowed the Committee to engage with students and have a comprehensive conversation about the purpose behind their request. This comprehensive process has also allowed the Meal Plan Petition committee to better identify at-risk cases and refer them to the Student Health Center, Counseling Services or other campus resources that can provide the support they need. By liaising with a campus-wide team, it also helps bring together various pieces of a puzzle which is ultimately in the best interest of the student.

The first year of the full meal plan requirement, Auxiliary Services received 71 meal plan petitions, and 70 the following year. After the new petition structure was implemented in 2016-17 and moved to a Qualtrics-based survey, petitions could be easily and securely routed directly to the pertinent areas. The Qualtrics-based survey also allowed for qualifying questions that helped students understand the process as they worked through the petition, so if a document was not uploaded, the petition cannot be completed. After just the first year of implementation, submissions were reduced to 49 petitions, 30 of which were accepted. The new format also allows Auxiliary Services and Dining to track the data year over year for continuous analysis. 

William & Mary carries a significant responsibility to support our students in their quest to be successful both in and out of the classroom. Through these newly formed partnerships, a stronger petition process, as well as a continuously evolving dining program, Auxiliary Services has made great strides to support this responsibility and our students. Said a student who was released from the meal plan requirement after submitting a petition, “The peace of mind, when it comes to eating, is well worth the effort.”