Meal Plan Not What Students Ordered

We call on students and administrators alike to reject the plans for MIT’s dining system described in the recently leaked draft consultants’ report to the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining. The report emphasizes “nutrition,” “social engagement,” and “community building” as core principles at the expense of personal responsibility, independence, and free will.

The overly broad vision of campus dining outlined in the report will never succeed. Instead, dining must be remade in a way that respects students and is consistent with the Institute’s egalitarian ethos.

It is not surprising that the details of the report have prompted such strong opposition amongst undergraduates. In the end, the purpose of a dining program at MIT should first and foremost be the provision of convenient, high-quality food — not as a tool for social engineering — and accomplishing that goal should be the main focus of any changes to the existing system.

It is clear that the current system of house-based dining is economically not sustainable. Residential dining operates at a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Due to economies of scale in the industry, smaller dining halls are by nature more difficult to operate at a profit than larger facilities.

The decision to reopen a number of new residential dining facilities (such as Simmons and McCormick) over the past decade was made in the name of the abstract concept of “community building,” not in an effort to provide the best and most efficient service for students. It should therefore come as no shock that the administration finds itself in a position where a mandatory meal plan appears to be the only option to make the system self-sufficient.

In order to construct a truly sustainable dining program on campus, however, the administration needs to start by understanding and accommodating student preferences, not by trying to shape them into some preconceived ideal.

By forcing MIT into the mold of other universities with mandatory dining programs, the consultants’ recommendations fail to consider the Institute’s highly valued sense of personal independence as well as the effects of such a broad spectrum of existing dining behavior.

Many students on campus — as a result of personal choice and the traditions of their living groups — prefer to spend their own money on their own schedule and cook what they want to, when they want to. Likewise, many students also appreciate the convenience of dining halls and a large number might welcome (and patronize) a full service “all you care to eat” (AYCE) facility. Another significant portion of the community resides in FSILGs with food service and may or may not choose to eat some of their meals on campus.

A comprehensive dining policy should strive to accommodate these preferences (and the full range of options in between) rather than pigeonholing students into a handful of “administration-approved” dining alternatives. Students who do not wish to participate in a dining program should not be required to, and students who desire the services of a dining hall should be offered a high-quality AYCE facility with service from breakfast through dinner. This facility should be conveniently located to the center of campus and should be operated to be economically self-sufficient without mandatory participation — if it cannot support itself through the revenues of those who use it, it shouldn’t exist.

When it comes to crafting the details of particular plans under a new dining policy, flexibility and affordability should be the key criteria. Students should be able to choose from different levels of full service plans, hybrid AYCE/declining balance meals, or no plan at all. The first option will better serve those students who want the ability to rely on a dining hall for the majority of their meals every day. The last option will satisfy those who currently find little use for dining halls and prepare their own food, but will still give those students access to a conveniently located dining hall.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — the middle option provides for students who want to use college as a stepping stone to the real world: they have the freedom of being able to experiment with cooking or eating out, while still having ability to fall back on a dining hall when they’re most hosed. Moreover, any declining balance accounts should be totally refundable at the end of the academic year, lowering the barrier to food purchase without costing already-stretched college students money they desperately need.

While The Tech applauds MIT’s efforts to improve a flawed dining program, we are very concerned that the recommendations presented in the draft report represent a significant step in the wrong direction. A fair and equitable dining policy should treat MIT students as adults and should require vendors to provide convenient and high quality service without mandatory participation.

MIT’s Campus Dining should look at the popular, but optional dining program at UNC Chapel Hill as a model — that school boasts that its operation is “unique because all meal plans are voluntary… [t]herefore, we must earn your business.”