UA faces Dining Dollars law suit

Jennie Kushner

When comparing the price of tuition to the cost of Dining Dollars, one may feel inclined to deem the $300 expenditure a slight or even unnoticeable intrusion into one’s wallet.

In 2009, undergraduate enrollment at the University was about 23,700. With Dining Dollars costing $300 per semester per student, the fee extracts over $14 million from students, according to one of three lawsuits that were filed on Aug. 11.

The three class action lawsuits were filed against the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Auburn University for imposing these mandatory fees upon students. Each lawsuit was filed by a separate group of students who consider the fees to be in violation of state laws.

Attorneys Danny Evans and John Whitaker of G. Daniel Evans law firm in Birmingham filed the class action lawsuits on behalf of these students.

Danny Evans said in an e-mailed statement that the Dining Dollars program coerces students into making a payment that constricts students’ free choice but rewards the University.

“These fees are not tuition and not related to classroom instruction,” Evans said. “Instead, these food fees are mandated because these state schools have contracted to give certain food vendors control over these student dining dollars in exchange for millions of dollars being paid back to the school. As a result, the food vendor is given guaranteed sales free from competition while the students see their cost rise with no choice about what or where they can spend these food fees.”

Around 1992, the University hired consultants to expand dining services and provide greater income to the University, according to the complaint.

At that time, only 7 percent of the student population purchased food plans through the University, the complaint said, but by implementing mandatory food services, the fee was projected to produce revenue in excess of $5 million per year to the University.

In 1996, the Board of Trustees and Aramark, a food service company, entered into a contract.

The contract said Aramark was essentially given exclusive control over the food and dining services offered on the University campus and control over Dining Dollars, the complaint said.

Under that contract, Aramark agreed to pay the University $1.35 million as an investment in the renovation of the Ferguson Center food court facility, pay a guaranteed, minimum dollar amount and pay a 15 percent guaranteed commission on all sales in excess of $8 million, the complaint said.

“I would rather have the $300 cash than be limited to only three off campus restaurants and the overpriced campus dining,” Emily Reid, a junior majoring in kinesiology.

However, Chelsea Morrison, a senior majoring in psychology, likes the ease of Dining Dollars.

“I would rather have 300 dining dollars, because this is the only way for me to eat,” she said. “If I had the cash, I would spend it on something like clothes and not have money for food.”

In exchange, the University agreed to renovate the Ferguson food court and other dining facilities on campus for Aramark’s use, the complaint said.

Currently there are three off-campus locations that accept Dining Dollars: Buffalo Phil’s, Crimson Café and Dominos.

According to the complaint, merchants were required to bid against others for the opportunity to accept Dining Dollars, which would then allow the merchant some access to student food purchases controlled by Aramark.

The vendor also had to purchase a card reader machine, pay a yearly fee and then pay a substantial percentage of their sales ranging from 15 to 26 percent.

“In the beginning of the year, most of our sales are done from dining dollars,” Crimson Café owner, Rhett Madden, said.

Buffalo Phil’s owner, Phillip Weaver, was contacted Monday and didn’t return the phone call.

Craig Williams, Buffalo Phil’s general manager, said not all their business comes from Dining Dollars.

“We have a good mix of customers. We have a lot of cash business,” Williams said. “We have been here for 30 years.  A lot of city officials, professors, lawyers and doctors eat here.”

Some students said if Buffalo Phil’s didn’t accept Dining Dollars, they wouldn’t eat there.

“Their food quality is poor, the wings are small and the food is soggy,” Taylor Hess, a sophomore majoring in engineering, said. “The only reason so many people eat there is to use Dining Dollars.”

Williams said, in the past year or two, other locations of Buffalo Phil’s closed.

Bama Dining was contacted Monday but as of Tuesday afternoon, has yet to respond.