Meal Plan Working Group discusses dining costs at DormCon meeting

MIT Dining currently operates at $1.6 million loss

The Meal Plan Working Group discussed the financial challenges of implementing a new meal plan model at a Dormitory Council meeting Nov. 21. 

Peter Cummings, executive director for administration for the Division of Student Life, said the goal of the Meal Plan Working Group is to develop “a long-term financially stable dining program” that balances nutrition and meal plan flexibility in all six residential dining halls.

“We need to break the cycle of dissatisfaction with our dining program,” Cummings said, noting that the effort last spring to adjust the lowest meal plan faced “extreme pushback” from students.

Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes said that the largest expenditure in campus dining halls is staff labor, with 67 cents of every dollar going towards paying workers a “living wage.” Other constraints to the meal plan design include the geographic “proximity of dining options and barriers to quick meal swipes,” Hayes said.

Cummings described MIT Dining as a “high operating cost model” and an “inherently inefficient system,” especially compared to colleges with higher meal plan enrollments. The problem is exacerbated by low student participation in the meal plan system.

Hayes cited that MIT Dining currently has $11 million in costs and only $9.4 million in revenues, compared to dining system revenues of $45 million at Harvard and $29 million at Princeton. The costs include $10 million for the operation of Bon Appetit and $0.5 million in reserves for renovations.

Hayes said the addition of the New Vassar dining hall is expected to increase MIT Dining’s financial loss from $1.6 million to $2.2 million. Cummings said the dining hall will operate on a slightly higher cost basis than Maseeh.

Cummings said that in the past 60 years, MIT Dining has never broke even; the loss is effectively subsidized by MIT. Cummings added, “There’s no way we could put that $1.6 million on the backs of the students.”

The meal plan system has grown in flexibility by allowing students to choose between weekly and block plans, dropping the minimum meal plan requirement for sophomores, and introducing dining dollars. Cummings said the trade-off between flexibility and cost has increased the financial strain on MIT Dining over time.

Hayes said the dining dollar system was implemented to “provide some portability in meal plans on East Campus” in response to student feedback. The flexible use of dining dollars at retail dining venues (including 10 percent spent at off-campus venues) have decreased Bon Appetit’s residential dining revenues by $1 million, Hayes said.

Hayes said the working group is also “grappling with food insecurity” on campus, citing TechMart and the SwipeShare system as examples of programs that the new meal plan model could potentially impact.

Emma Batson ’20 commented that student pushback against changes to the meal plan system stem from concerns about “sensitivity to economic status” and “not having people choose their living community on the basis of whether they can afford it.”

Cummings said that the working group hopes to “rationalize” the meal plan model by gathering student feedback. The development of the model will likely involve “having MIT leadership consider how to fund certain elements” of the meal plan, Cummings said.

Hayes said the Meal Plan Working Group has conducted a first round of visits to dining halls, invited students to communicate concerns to the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council, and encouraged student feedback via an online form.