Leaked Dining Proposal Prompts Student Response

Draft Proposal Includes More Dining Hours, Mandatory Meal Plans, and Breakfast Options

Mandatory meal plans, all-you-can-eat dining halls, and longer service hours are some of the recommendations made in a consultant’s report for the future of MIT dining, which was leaked to dormitory e-mail lists this weekend. Several days earlier, student leaders had raised concerns that the proposal had been delivered to administrators but not to members of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining.

A draft presentation and an executive summary, created by consulting firm Envision Strategies, were made publicly available Saturday night.

All meal plans in the proposal require a significantly higher mandated minimum contribution than current meal plans. The report bases its plans on the idea that students should set aside money to be used exclusively for dining.

Richard D. Berlin III, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, as Director of Campus Dining Services, declined to comment on the state of the committee or the contents of the proposal on Monday, writing in an e-mail, “[U]ntil the Blue Ribbon Committee itself has the opportunity to review and discuss the consultant’s report, I don’t believe that commenting on the material for the Tech would be appropriate.”

These proposals are not final; the Blue Ribbon Committee plans to evaluate the consultants’ report and make final recommendations to the administration regarding the future of dining at MIT.

A component of all plans in the proposal is “Dining Dollars,” money similar to TechCASH that can be spent on food. The report recommends allowing Dining Dollars to be spent at on-campus dining venues, convenience stores, and local grocery stores, but preventing the money from being spent on non-food items such as beer or cigarettes.

Under the proposed plan, freshmen living in residences with all-you-can-eat (AYCE) dining (the report suggests Baker, Next House, and Simmons) would be required to purchase a plan ranging from a minimum of $1,350 per semester for 75 meals (5 per week) and $650 in dining dollars and TechCASH to a maximum of $2,475 for the unlimited meal plan with $50 in dining dollars.

Freshmen living in other dormitories would have the option of selecting all of the plans available to those in AYCE residences, plus several declining-balance plans. The cheapest option is $950 (according to the draft presentation) or $995 (according to the executive summary) per semester in dining dollars.

The required contribution from students decreases as seniority increases, but the lowest contribution required is still $600 (according to the draft presentation) or $800 (according to the executive summary) per semester, a plan available only to juniors and seniors in dorms without dining halls. Upperclassmen in dormitories with AYCE dining halls would still be required to choose a plan that includes a number of AYCE meals.

Currently, the five dormitories with dining halls — Baker House, McCormick Hall, Next House, Simmons Hall, and NW35 — require that residents subscribe to a $300-per-semester meal plan that offers students 50 percent off à la carte items at all dormitory dining halls. NW35 offers an AYCE dinner for $8 ($4 with the dining plan). Currently, residents of dormitories without dining halls do not have a requirement to subscribe to any meal plan.

The consultants also made a variety of suggestions to expand dining to the east side of campus, such as re-opening Pritchett as an AYCE dining hall. They also recommended expanding dining hall service to include breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The impetus for mandatory meal plans and dining halls that offer longer hours and AYCE options in the proposal seem to come largely from concerns over the low percentage of students reported to maintain a balanced diet — less than 20 percent of undergraduates and 30 percent of graduate students, according to a campus-wide spring 2008 survey administered by Envision Strategies and the Blue Ribbon Committee.

The draft report cites encouraging proper nutrition as one of the key purposes of a campus dining program. They state a vision that “dining plans should insure that economic considerations do not compromise student nutrition.”

In addition to nutrition, social engagement and community building were also listed as primary justifications for the recommendations.

Sit-down dining venues “may be more conducive for social engagement,” according to the report.

The report claims “thoughts that survey respondents tend to agree upon” included “MIT should offer a global meal plan to build community,” “Meals are an important part of the residential life experience,” and “Broader commitments are justified if it results in lower costs and better service.”

The slide presentation, however, notes that “students do not think there should be a meal plan commitment, regardless of where they live.”

Some details such as costs and which students would be required to participate were inconsistent between the presentation and summary, possibly suggesting that the specifics are still tentative at this point.

Historical Perspective

The proposal of the Blue Ribbon Committee is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade old story. Over that time, MIT has often tried to revamp the way its students eat. Mandatory meal plans are the norm at most peer institutions, but all recent efforts to make MIT more like its peers have stalled because of student opposition.

Previous incarnations of the Blue Ribbon Committee, such as the House Dining Committee in 1992, the Institute Dining Review Working Group in the mid-1990s and the Campus Dining Board in 2001, have all attempted to resolve the question of dining at MIT. All these committees and working groups suggested mandatory meal plans whose implementations were derailed due to student opposition.

Until 1993, MIT had dining for houses with dining halls: Baker, MacGregor, McCormick and Next. That year, MIT tried to introduce a more expensive AYCE option for those dining halls in an attempt to make the dining system solvent. But the Institute eventually backtracked when the plan met with student resistance to the high price tag and instead chose to close the dining halls in MacGregor and McCormick.

Over the rest of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, several other committees tried to develop an acceptable dining solution. Eventually a new model of subsidized dining, with students paying an up-front fee and then buying a la carte meals at half price, emerged with the creation of Simmons Hall in 2002. Baker and Next House followed Simmons’ example the following year, and McCormick reopened its dining hall the year after that with the same model. As of last week, the new undergraduate dormitory NW35 also adopted this subsidized dining model after initially trying a completely mandatory meal plan (one up-front fee for all meals).

Several current administrators have been involved in past iterations of MIT dining committees. The current Secretary of the Institute, Kirk D. Kolenbrander, was a one-time chair of the Campus Dining Board of 2001. The activity of this committee overlapped with the start of Berlin’s tenure. And the Director of the Campus Activities Complex, Phillip J. Walsh, was a leader of the earlier Institute Dining Review working group of the mid-1990s.