Campus Life

QUARKINESS Free food fixations

A casual exploration into our obsession with free food

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Free food is often found at events around campus. There are several free food lists, the largest being
Joanna Kao—Tech File photo

When I first came to MIT about four years ago, I got the bright idea that I would live on free food as much as possible. I attended info sessions and club meetings, and I kept my eyes peeled for free food emails and free food lying around.

Sound familiar? Probably. Many of us have fallen into the free food trap at some point, and some of us have even become seasoned scavengers and connoisseurs of free food. A friend of mine is so deft with acquiring free food that free food seems to scour the Institute for him rather than the other way around. He has never crept above $150 a semester for food and has managed to spend as little as $62 on food in a single semester, which was spent mostly on milk.

The obsession with free food is practically an MIT subculture. There are multiple free food mailing lists (the biggest is, which I thought was the most brilliant thing when I was a freshman) and many free food calendars. A friend and I actually started our own Google Calendar when we were wee froshlings. Even three years after we stopped updating it, other free food enthusiasts have continued keeping it up-to-date with free food events. And it’s not just the Internet that has free food calendars: I have seen dormitory bathroom readers with sections called “This Week’s Dinner Menu” that listed info sessions and the type of food that would be served. Feel like eating burgers this Wednesday? Go to Schlumberger. Are your taste buds calling out for pizza instead? Palantir Technologies has that covered.

What’s up with our obsession with free food? Well, for one, it’s free. For another, we have been conditioned from Day 1 — even Day 0 — at MIT to embrace the free food movement because MIT sells itself to us with free food.

It begins with Campus Preview Weekend (CPW), when MIT practically throws free food at the prefrosh. The nice people at Admissions even provide TechCASH cards to prefrosh with a small amount of food monies on them, in the case the prefrosh aren’t able to make it to one of the several hundred free food events peppered throughout the weekend. CPW is a festival of free food that may give prefrosh the impression that MIT is all about free food, and in some senses, it is — at least when frosh first arrive on campus.

FPOPs, REX, Orientation, and FSILG Rush certainly help reinforce the drive to obtain free food. Once term starts, student groups then use free food to woo frosh (and maybe some upperclassmen) into joining. Between all of these events, free food is reinforced as an Important Thing.

It is not surprising, then, that we tend to have a fixation on free food. So many students go to great lengths to get free food, whether that means trekking across campus to claim a free food post that may have already been snatched up or spending over an hour at an info session just to get a few free slices of Bertucci’s pizza or a plate of Redbones.

Occasionally, the acquisition of free food gets out of hand — like the time my hall acquired so much quiche that nobody could finish eating it, or when East Campus acquired enough apples to overflow the dorm’s front desk. Our free food obsession goes so far that we sometimes end up acquiring food of no value (uneaten and ultimately tossed) or even negative value (food that takes up space in the fridge while it rots). And why do we do it? Because it’s hardwired into our brains that acquiring free food is important, whether or not said free food actually goes into someone’s stomach.

Of course, many of us begin to draw the free food line at some point, mostly out of time and effort constraints as we become more hosed. For instance, after my first semester here, I decided it wasn’t worth sitting through info sessions to get my daily dinner (I’m apparently too polite to grab food shamelessly and leave), causing my free food consumption rate to plummet. My free food tastes have also gotten a bit more demanding, and I became less interested in exchanging time for free food that just tastes “okay.” Instead of attending info sessions to eat Bertucci’s pizza and rolls, I pick free food events that serve grilled sea bass or crème brûlée.

Okay, I only get free food that fancy once or twice a semester, but the point is that I am now much pickier when it comes to getting free food due to time and taste constraints. If free food appears on my hall and I’m hungry, I will eat it, and occasionally I will try to claim the contents of a free food post for the fun of it. Otherwise, my interactions with free food are saved for the meetings and events that I happen to go to for their non-edible contents, such as student-faculty dinners. Awesome company, conversation, and free food — what more could I ask for from MIT?

Ah, right — even more free food.