Opinion open letter

An open letter regarding MIT Dining changes and enhancements

MIT is known for solving complex problems. While it’s not nearly as momentous as landing Americans on the moon or developing low-cost emergency ventilators, operating the campus dining program comes with complex challenges and constraints that are seldom visible to meal plan subscribers and dining hall patrons.

That’s why in June 2019, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson requested the formation of a working group — consisting of students, heads of house, and staff — to review the student meal plan structure and to propose a new approach, informed by student input, that emphasizes quality and variety, accessibility, and financial sustainability. In subsequent months, the Meal Plan Working Group reviewed the house dining program’s features and financial parameters, discussed updated plan commitments, and ultimately proposed a new dining plan structure to Dean Nelson and former Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, which was previewed at a community forum on March 5, 2020.

Just a week later, MIT shifted into pandemic mode; campus life was completely disrupted and the dining plan implementation was put on hold for the 2020-21 academic year while undergraduates and house team members living on campus were enrolled in a special meal plan subsidized by MIT.

As MIT started work on getting back to pre-pandemic operating conditions last spring, Campus Dining implemented the first phase of the revised meal plan, which included new minimum commitment levels for the Class of 2025. The new minimums will apply to each subsequent incoming class, with the plan reaching full implementation with the Class of 2028. The old minimum commitments will phase out with the Classes of 2023 and 2024. Staff from MIT Dining in the Division of Student Life presented the revised plan at events throughout 2021, including virtual CPW in April, orientation in August, and discussions with the DormCon House Dining Committee last fall.

In spite of the necessary changes made to support MIT’s pandemic response, MIT Dining and culinary partner Bon Appétit (BA) continued to work on improving facilities and offerings throughout the last two years. For example:

System-wide: BA continues to hire new chefs to implement fresh ideas and elevate quality across the system based on the spring 2021 student dining survey results, which suggested that food quality and variety were among meal plan subscribers’ top concerns. Additionally, BA’s director of culinary operations and regional dietician updated staff training to focus on food quality and introduced new menus that provide a broader selection of meals, such as halal entrées at all houses. Don’t just take my word for it — if you haven’t stopped by a campus dining location recently, I encourage you to visit one of our locations to experience these improvements for yourself.

Maseeh Hall: The entire allergen-free kitchen encompassing the Oasis Station in the Howard Dining Hall is being overhauled to support students with food allergies or who follow special diets. This includes adding new grills, a pasta cooker, and a salad bar specifically for gluten-free items. Also, a new gluten-free pantry and an updated gluten-free station opened in the fall.

New Vassar: The dining facility opened at full capacity in the fall, including lunch hours. Students told the Meal Plan Working Group that crowds at Maseeh prevented them from eating a mid-day meal. Since New Vassar opened for lunch, we have seen lunchtime usage of Maseeh and New Vassar start to balance out. 

Baker: Taking cues from national trends toward healthier, fresher, greens-forward meals, BA introduced the Green Lite salad station last fall.

Simmons: The popular late-night snack station moved to Simmons’ servery and brought on a new menu that reflects some of the most popular items served at Maseeh’s late-night station.

The house dining program’s success relies on a continuing partnership between students, house teams, staff, and BA, with great reliance placed on community feedback. As a result, Dining will continue the student satisfaction survey, which has shaped these and other recent program enhancements after it was started last fall in cooperation with student leaders. We will keep communication channels open between students, dining staff, and campus dining so we can keep improving — to let us know what you think, meal plan subscribers can participate in the next dining satisfaction survey and anyone can share feedback on house or campus dining any time through foodstuff@mit.edu.

Mark Hayes
Director, Campus Dining