With almost half of Qatar Foundation universities’ student body being international students, the availability of easily accessible food options is of extreme importance. Many students rely on options such as ordering in, eating out or simply making use of the residential complex’s own dining options. However, the introduction of a meal plan aimed to package the convenient solution for obtaining food in a single card.
There are many solutions which address the issue of students’ limited finances find themselves living by. One such solution is the meal plan which was introduced by Integral Food Services in August 2018. It offers students the opportunity to go cashless, since they can pay in advance and load their dining cards with “Flex Riyals.” For each deposit, starting from 100 QAR to 500 QAR, students receive an additional award of “bonus” riyals which increase the original balance in the card. The card can be used at “any participating IFS outlet,” according to an announcement sent out by Student Housing and Residence Life (SHRL) Front Desk Manager, Krishnadev Pillai; one of the outlets is the Global Cafe which is available in multiple buildings in Education City, including Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Liberal Arts and Sciences building, Student Housing and Residence Life, and the Student Center.
The meal plan was initiated to be a budget-friendly option for students, particularly for international students residing at Student Housing and Residence Life. “We would like to give this [meal plan] as a privilege to QF students,” said Noor Parkar, project manager for IFS. The company has introduced many user-friendly adaptations to the meal card in an attempt to maximize its benefits. Parkar said that the IFS website allows students to load money into their meal card balance and they offer subsidized prices due to their contractual agreement with Qatar Foundation. Moreover, IFS outlets highlight allergens and include menu items which take different dietary needs into account in order to provide a more inclusive experience. Lastly, unlike a credit or debit card, the meal card increases one’s initial balance, through “Flex Riyals,” every time a deposit is made. Hence, with the top-up award, the meal plan is more considerate of student budgets than most alternative options.
Many students have echoed Parkar’s sentiments and stated that the meal card is a much-appreciated development. “The card limits the need to carry around cash,” said Iman A. Ismail, sophomore at Georgetown University in Qatar, affirmed after investing in the meal card. “The bonus charges [flex riyals] help with financial management and saving.”
Deepu Prathyusha, senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, also supported the introduction of the meal card as a budget friendly and convenient option for students. “A lot of students are helped when buying food and feeling like they have no other option [for eating anywhere else],” Prathyusha said.
While the meal card has proved to be increasingly convenient for a number of students, several concerns have been voiced regarding the limited range of outlets one can use the cards at. “The main complaint I have,” Ismail said, “is that the meal card has limited usage to the few IFS caterers throughout Education City.” This, according to her, produces a very small range of options for students who primarily rely on the meal plan for food.
The meal plan may have engaged in some degree of false advertisement, according to Safina Ibrahim, a freshman at Georgetown University. “People who invest in these meal cards think that all [the IFS restaurants] will be available to them as well. There are limited [options]; I rarely use my meal card because the food at the Global Cafe does not taste good enough to eat constantly,” said Ibrahim. Though advertised as applicable to any IFS vendor by Qatar Foundation Student Housing, it was left unspecified whether the card would work at IFS outlets outside EC. In reality, the vendors which appear on the back of the meal card, with the exception of Coffee Time cafe, do not accept it as a means of payment.
“Yes, it misleads a little,” Parkar admitted when talking about the vendors which were featured at the back of the card, “We are trying to integrate [the meal card] across all the branches. However, the networking process is not complete yet.”
Zeest Marrium, a freshman at Northwestern University in Qatar, revealed that she was given a meal plan by her university at the start of the semester. This trial run allowed her to decide whether it was a good investment or not. While Marrium had a positive experience with using the meal card, alleviating the pressure of having to carry around cash, she stated that she will not personally invest in the meal card in the future. “The meal card can be used in places where you spend at least 20 QAR if you want a full meal,” Marrium said. “The places where the meal card is applicable or can be used are a little overpriced if I compare it to ordering out.”
According to Marrium, rather than being the best financial decision for students, the meal card is actually a matter of convenience because of the nearby outlets available on-campus. However, “it does have a psychological con because you can’t visually see [how much money you have],” she said. “This encourages a tendency to overspend.”
Still in its infancy, the meal plan is not specialized to every student’s individual needs but it presents an alternative which is a convenient option for students who do not have access to kitchens. As the IFS is in the midst of networking with more vendors, the meal plan displays great potential for expanding its range of services. While no service may ever entirely meet student’s complete dietary and financial needs, the launch of the meal plan was an active step towards an attempt to do so and students await the result of its future progress.