Where Did the Gift Cards Go?

ELYNOR GREGORICH | NEWS CORRESPONDENT

The popular meal dollar gift cards disappeared from circulation several semesters ago. Upperclassmen fondly remember the system which allowed students to transform large chunks of their meal plans into a form useable even after the end of the semester. Barb Wickham, Associate Director of Retail Operations, explains why the gift cards were discontinued.

As the semester draws to a close, students with leftover meal dollars must decide how to spend them. Because extra dollars on the meal plan disappear if not used by the end of the term, many students choose to make a charitable donation or buy up long-lasting foodstuffs.

Many upperclassmen, however, wonder why there are no large-amount gift cards sold around campus as there were two years ago. Barb Wickham explains that the gift card system was not a long-standing policy that was suddenly terminated. In fact, it was only temporarily implemented as a response to a fire which damaged the campus center in May 2015.

The fire began in the patio space between the Campus Center and the river on May 3. Although the fire crews controlled the fire within an hour and the building was not severely damaged, smoke caused thousands of dollars of foodstuffs to be destroyed in Phil’s, and in a Green Bay Press-Gazette article published a week after the fire, the total cost was estimated at $500,000. Employees from Phil’s were transferred to the cafeteria and to Ed’s for two months while the building was closed for cleaning, Wickham remembers.

Since the entire stock of food was ruined, students needed someplace else to spend meal dollars. Wickham instituted a temporary convenience stop in what is now a critique room off the hallway which connects the Bush Art Center to Michels Commons.  Because it took time to get new stock ordered in and because inventory was limited by the lack of refrigeration, storage and food preparation facilities, there were few options beyond chips and sodas available for students who suddenly found themselves with more meal dollars than they could easily spend.

Vending machines, Ed’s and Ruth’s Marketplace were still accessible, but a number of students rely on the purchases they make from Phil’s. In the interest of fairness and keeping everyone fed, the gift card system was implemented to preserve meal dollars with no place to go. However, the necessary but hasty system had long-reaching effects on the budget.

Wickham explains that each of the food outlets on campus has its own budget, and each is mandated to spend a specific percent of its total costs on food, while the majority of the rest is taken up by wages for the workers. The amount spent on food is calculated based on previous sales, however, so it’s important to keep a firm grip on the money coming in for any particular budget period. After the fire, the budget for Phil’s was, of course, anomalous, and it took some time to straighten the accounts out, partly because of the way gift cards work.

In any other business or restaurant, Wickham explains, money customers use to purchase gift cards would be kept in a separate account. When the credit is redeemed, the money for the transaction is drawn from that special account. At St. Norbert College, no separate account exists within the meal plan for gift cards, so the money all goes to the same place. The gift cards were an improvised provision created in order to be fair to students in the wake of the fire; they existed without the structure intended for a long-term system. Unfortunately, even after the fire, staff at locations around campus continued to sell gift cards.

When students redeemed meal dollars this way, it misled the budget calculations. Even after Phil’s reopened, the money from students paying for gift cards would show up in the budget as payment for food. But since the gift card wouldn’t be redeemed until later, it skewed the data used to plan the budget. Gift cards were since capped at $50, and eventually phased out to avoid this sort of financial misdirection.

Though many students miss the convenience of the gift cards, Wickham points out that there are other viable options for the few students with a significant amount of meal dollars left over. Anything, all the supplies and foods sold in Ed’s and Phil’s, can be sold to students in bulk, Wickham says. Students can ask for a supply of irregular items or ingredients like baking powder, or choose from the price sheet of more popular items kept at the register in Phil’s and available from December 1.  Listed goods include everything from Frappuccinos to loaves of bread to frozen mozzarella sticks. Some are available individually or in cases, while others (mostly the frozen meats and snacks) come in large packages of several pounds each.

Students with no use for a case of 48 frozen veggie burgers or the like have the option to send their meal dollars directly to charity. This method of giving helps fill the greatest need as demand changes; it makes available whatever people need, instead of whatever luck brings to the donation box over the holiday season. Though the gift cards went up in flames, between donations and bulk purchases, students still have somewhere to go with leftover meal dollars.

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