Generating house dining plan ideas in the context of program challenges and constraints
In Fall 2011, MIT introduced a new dining program that was developed during a lengthy process of community engagement starting in March 2010. Over time, with additional input from students, amendments and adjustments to meal plan options added flexibility and portability. Throughout that time and up to today, the dining program has sparked discussion and debate. Today, we write to ask for your help as we look to shape the program’s future.
After the pause on meal plan changes last spring, Dean Suzy Nelson asked us to form a working group of students and staff. That group began their work on Sept. 27, when attendees discussed the dining program’s goals and a number of issues the program faces.
To widen the circle beyond plan subscribers and to share plan information with all students, we have posted the program’s challenges and constraints online at http://studentlife.mit.edu/mpwg/. MIT has an obligation to help students get the nutrition they need, and every day we work to improve the dining program. At the same time, we are aware that some are dissatisfied with dining. With an eye toward generating additional creative ideas for the working group to consider that better address plan subscribers’ quality expectations and MIT’s need for financial sustainability, we share this context.
Challenges & Constraints
Value and quality balance: A dining program improves with the investment of funds customarily generated by meal plan sales. At the same time, our plans are among the least-expensive when compared to peers and area colleges.
The satisfaction cycle: MIT’s dining system runs at a deficit, making reinvestment difficult. This leads to a decrease in the meal plan’s perceived value, an increase in dissatisfaction among mandatory subscribers, and further limits participation and the dining program’s sustainability.
Why do we face these challenges?
High operating costs: Food service facilities are expensive to run, especially in the greater Boston area. Also, unlike independent or franchise restaurant operators, MIT stipulates that all Bon Appétit staff (in dining halls, retail operations, and catering facilities) make a living wage.
Limited participation: Many other colleges require students living on campus to subscribe to a meal plan. MIT has a multi-tier approach that offers meal plan flexibility for upper-level students in dining houses. We also have cook-for-yourself residences without dining halls or meal plan requirements. At the same time, the low number of meal plan subscribers and increasing instances when students eat in non-dining facilities drives up per-person meal plan delivery costs.
Proximity of dining options, barriers to quick meal-service, and meal-swipe usage: Findings from the 2017 dining study indicated that students prefer to eat breakfast or lunch closer to their classes or labs. For example, some subscribers report that Maseeh’s Howard Dining Hall is too far away from their academic activities to eat lunch, or that it is too crowded.
We have taken short-term steps to address proximity to the main group. In 2017, we introduced dining dollars that allow subscribers to eat at on- and off-campus locations using their meal plan. This fall, we opened “Pick-Four” in Walker Memorial’s Pritchett Dining Room, which gives subscribers their choice of hot and cold entrees, sides, desserts, and beverages on the east side of campus, closer to classrooms and labs.
The Meal Plan Working Group’s charge is to seek long-term solutions that reverse this cycle, boosting dining satisfaction and operating in the context of these constraints. We want to be responsive and to increase student satisfaction so that MIT Dining works better for subscribers and for the Institute. We need your help to get there. Please submit an idea or comment at https://tinyurl.com/y6jf8dtr or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Hayes, MIT Dining Director
Peter Cummings, Executive Director for Administration, DSL