Free food is not cheap: A look into student organizations’ biggest expense



Last semester, Trpko Blazevski was on campus every weekday. He never packed a lunch nor did he spend a single penny on food.

Still, he never went hungry.

Around noon, Blazevski, a freshman studying information technology, would tour the Oakland Center circuit — Fireside Lounge, the Banquet Rooms, the Gold Rooms, etc. — and almost always find an event offering free food.

“Fireside Lounge always usually had guest speakers, they’d have food there, or up in the Gold Rooms,” Blazevski said. “Or they’d have guest speakers in the Banquet Rooms. There’s always sandwiches or chicken or something.”

Blazevski has a noon class this semester, but his once-daily excursions for food beg the question: Oakland University has a lot of campus events, and many of them offer free food — but is it worth it?


On Feb. 17, the Albanian American Student Organization celebrated the third anniversary of Kosova’s independence. Like many events on campus, it was held from noon to 1 p.m. in Fireside Lounge. Fifty plastic folding chairs faced a podium and a projector. In back was a table adorned with standard Chartwells fare: Pizza, chicken strips, fruit and vegetable trays, water and lemonade to drink, plus chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.

A few moments after all the food was set up, a line of students about 15-deep formed, spilling into the hall.

Brittany Kelley, a sophomore studying English and French, stood in line to get a little of each. She said she read about the event on OU’s website and “thought it’d be interesting to check out.” Food, she said, had “a little bit” of an impact on her decision.

Like Kelley, most students said they attend based on the event itself, but admit that food is a major enticement.

One item in particular drew junior Dom Borowicz.

“If they got pizza, that’s usually the best,” Borowicz said.

By 12:10, most of the 50 seats were filled while almost half the food was gone. A few minutes later, the pizza and chicken strips — typically the most popular food items to students — were gone.

Borowicz said he comes to such events once a week. He loaded up his plate as another current events discussion was set to begin.

“It’s always interesting eating food and seeing people talk about the world’s problems,” Borowicz said.

Not exactly ‘free’

Alaina Farber, president of the Jewish Student Organization/Hillel, said that when she promotes her group’s events, she can always expect to hear one question: “Will there be free food?”

“It seems that just by putting ‘free food’ on a banner or flyer it increases your numbers,” Farber said.

But the food isn’t exactly free.

According to spreadsheets posted on OU Student Congress’s website, student organizations spent $45,087.28 on food in the Fall 2009 semester.

In Winter 2010: $47,456.66. Numbers aren’t presently available for either Fall 2010 or the current semester.

To receive funding, student organizations must fill out an allocation form and submit it to the Student Activities Funding Board, a standing committee of Oakland University Student Congress. SAFB, which consists of up to six members, is a direct-funded student organization. Its budget comes from the $25-per-student-per-semester student activities fee, of which it receives 24 percent.

Brandon Hanna, who has served as SAFB chair since the beginning of Fall 2010, said he receives about 40-50 allocation requests per week, most of which contain food requests.

All student organizations are eligible to receive up to $3,000 per semester from SAFB, no more than half of which can be spent on food. All beverages must be PepsiCo products. Events held inside the Oakland Center and Vandenberg must be catered by Chartwells; outside food is allowed at other campus locations.

“I would say over 90 percent (of food requests) are for Chartwells food,” Hanna said.

Student organizations have had mixed, though mostly positive, experiences with Chartwells.

“We have had excellent experiences with the brownies, quesadillas and chicken tenders,” Dylan Tanner, Phi Alpha Theta president, said. The honor society spent $493 on food last semester and expects to spend around $1,000 this semester. “We purchase those items more than any other. On the other hand, we have had a few bad experiences with their cheese and pepperoni pizzas, and we won’t be ordering them again.”

According to the student catering menu on OU’s website, a Chartwells cheese pizza costs $11.22; pepperoni pizzas cost $12.50 each. Appetizers range from $35-40 per platter. Beverage-wise, Chartwells sells various other hot and cold beverages priced at $9-9.52 per gallon.

Chartwells also works with student organizations to make food not on its menu, as it did for the Muggle Quidditch League of OU’s Feb. 28 event, a screening of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” The group served three gallons of butterbeer — priced at $44 per gallon, according to club president Nichole Seguin — specially made by Chartwells.

For outside events, Little Caesar’s Hot-N-Readies are a popular item.

“You can’t really go wrong with $5 Hot-N-Readies and a couple two liters,” James Norris, eminent archon of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, said. “It’s something that will bring the public out because most college students are ‘broke college students’ so it saves them money in the end and brings our organization a crowd, whether it’s for a recruitment event or philanthropy event.”

According to Hanna, there are currently about 220 student organizations — over 40 of which are new since the beginning of Fall 2010. SAFB’s budget increases proportionally with enrollment, but with such an influx of new student organizations, Hanna said they’ve had to become especially efficient at doling out funds.

“As long as student orgs don’t order too much food for their events, I think food is a great thing,” Hanna said.

Effect on attendance

While he went to events with the goal of finding free food, Blazevski said he’d often end up being drawn into the panel’s discussion or the presentation being given.

“I’d usually sit there. I mean, maybe not the whole thing, but I’d kind of feel bad just going, grabbing food and walking away. So I’d usually sit and listen to part of it, if not the whole thing,” Blazevski said.

When Jane Choi’s professor told her about Not For Sale — a Feb. 15 event that aimed to educate students about the global sex trafficking industry — the professor didn’t fail to mention there would be free food. And while Choi, a junior studying political science, enjoyed some of the pasta salad and veggie wraps that were offered, she said the subject matter was a bigger draw.

“I always go based on the topic or if it’s something I’m interested in,” Choi said.

But Greg Bastien, president of OU’s Film Makers Guild, said too many students came to his group’s events just to get free food.

“OU’s Film Makers Guild unanimously decided to stop having food at events because it was taking money from our budget that could be spent towards making films,” Bastien said.

The French club, which has spent about $500 on food this semester, has had more positive results, according to club President Ashley Thomas.

“Free food brings in a lot of people. Not only do they like to try new things, because we like to have traditional French pastries and other European foods, but they love to come and mingle while eating. We always have big turnouts at our events and meetings when there is food involved,” Thomas said.

The Saturday morning before finals last semester, the Social Work Club/Phi Alpha held an event in the Oakland Center featuring massages, yoga and, of course, food.

“We had fruit trays, veggie trays, cheese and cracker trays for our healthy food to go along with our self-care curriculum. And then we also had cheese sticks, chicken tenders, cookies and brownies for comfort food,” club president Meredith Parish said. “We figured students are stressed during finals so we balanced the ‘comfort’ food with the ‘healthy’ food.”

For Oakland’s many student organizations, offering free food at events continues to be a balancing act between attracting audiences and not letting the message of their events get lost.