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MIT student blogger Elijah T. '11

Talking About Dining by Elijah T. '11

There's been a lot of talk on campus about one thing – dining.

There’s been a lot of talk on campus about one thing – dining.

You see, MIT currently has a rather unorthodox dining system, and by that I mean we don’t really have one. You, your parents, or someone else will add money to a TechCash account and whenever your ID is swiped anywhere on campus – and a few places off campus – the money is deducted from your account. It’s a debit card system; nothing fancy about it. If you want, you could just as easily use cash.

But this alone apparently does not produce a profitable venture. To encourage students to eat at the dorm dining halls (currently only open for dinner), students who live in dorms with dining halls (McCormick, Baker, Next, and Simmons) have to sign up for preferred dining at a cost of $300 per semester, which simply gives those students a half-price discount on all purchases at dorm dining halls. And even with this in place, MIT still has had to subsidize dining to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Unsurprisingly, MIT doesn’t like subsidizing food. So, over the past year or two a committee called the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), composed of administrators and students, was set up to explore new options. At the end of this past spring term, they came up with a plan – a plan that has been met with widespread student condemnation.

Operationally, there will big some huge changes coming to dining next year – there are plans to shift the hours of some of the dining halls around so that they’re not all simultaneously open; perhaps they’ll have one or two that close at 10pm instead of during the 8pm hour. All the dining halls should be open seven days a week, compared to the current five days a week for some. Further, the dorm dining halls will offer continental breakfast, something which is a rare find on campus now. And, perhaps most importantly, instead of the a la carte system ubiquitous this year, the dorm dining halls will have all-you-can-eat meals. (In addition, kosher options will be available in dining halls six nights a week and halal dining options will be more widely available.)

But those changes aren’t what are making students unhappy. Instead, it’s the compulsion to eat at dining halls for almost every meal (if not every meal) that is effectively incumbent upon all students who live in dining dorms (McCormick, Baker, Next, Simmons, and, starting next year, Maseeh). Students in those dorms will have to sign up for a meal plan that consists of a certain number of breakfasts and dinners per week:

Freshmen will only be permitted to sign up for the 14-meal-per-week plan ($3,800/year). Sophomores can either sign up for that plan or the 12-meal-per-week ($3,400/year), while junior and seniors can sign up for the freshman or sophomore plans or a 10-meal-per-week plan ($2,900/year). With all three plans; the meals must be split between breakfasts and dinners (e.g. the ten-meal plan cannot be allocated to seven dinners and three breakfasts). Further, as is the case currently, students who live outside dining dorms would be unaffected, although they would be permitted to pay for individual meals at the dorm dining halls and sign up for any of the meal plans.

The main sticking point for students is the cost: HDAG’s own report (p. 5) indicated that the average student living in a dorm with a dining hall spends just $2,250 a year on food – and that figure includes lunch, which is not included in the weekly meal plans. Because of this, students are worried prospective freshmen will choose dorms not primarily based on culture (as is, supposedly, currently the case – although I contend location is a factor as well) but on whether they will have to pay for the dining plans. To its defense, however, MIT has noted that the financial aid office, when considering how much funding to award students, already budgets a considerable $4,460 for food and that they may consider adjusting the budget to accommodate for the additional costs resulting from the plan.

Those in fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups are worried some of their members who still live on-campus (e.g. freshman pledges) will come to their houses less often for (often free) dinner because they have already been locked in to the dining hall meals. Further still, with so many events offering free dinner as an incentive to attend as well as the simple desire to go out to eat on the weekend, it is extremely rare that one eats at a dining hall for seven – or even five – consecutive dinners.

Others are a bit unhappy they’ll be forced to pay for breakfasts they probably won’t use; I rarely eat breakfast other than some breakfast bars purchased from the supermarket or an early-morning burrito from Anna’s Tacqueria, although I’m sure I’d eat breakfast more often if it’s already paid for. And, indeed, that’s part of the intention of the plan: encouraging students to eat more healthily, including by eating breakfast and (presumably healthier) on-campus options.

But they had to know changing the dining system from one that stands at the zenith of choice to one that looks like the nadir of it was going to infuriate students. And infuriate it has. Over the past two months, a number of petitions have been going across campus voicing dissent to the new dining plan. Just last week, things reached a fever pitch as the petitions went digital. Signs appeared all over campus encouraging people to ‘say no’.

As of Sunday, November 21, at 4pm (EST, UTC-5), there have been 1,653 signatures – from students, parents, alumni, and faculty – to the petition; with more than 1,400 of those signatures coming from undergraduates, that means a third of undergraduates have voiced their opposition to the plan (not, of course, to suggest two thirds are in favor of it).

On Thursday evening, there was even a sit-in protest in Baker Dining (where you were supposed to bring your own food to the dining hall):

To be honest, though, I was surprised at the rather – um – sparse attendance, given the apparent vehement opposition to the new plan.

As of now, there have been no indications from the people up high that the plan is going to be altered before next year. They have noted that the HDAG includes student members and that efforts were made last year, especially in the spring term, to acquire student feedback. One student HDAG member was quoted as saying the time for feedback had ended after the final plan was announced, although they’re reconsidering amid all the furor. MIT has submitted a request for proposal to several caterers, so, barring a tectonic shift, this will be in place for the fall of 2011.

But, we shall see. I am at least happy to see MIT students politically interested in, even if not always involved with, a major issue on campus – and it’s unlikely, especially if the plan is implemented, the student interest will abate. Feel free to follow along through The Tech; dining articles from over the past year can be found by search.

8 responses to “Talking About Dining”

  1. Nicole '10 says:

    I think the sparse attendance at the protest actually just contributes to one of the arguments against the dining plan – over 1400 undergraduates are opposed, but only 25 of them had time to visit the dining hall… is this really going to change next year when the new plan goes into effect?

  2. David says:

    I just checked the prices, and it’s a bit funny how an additional breakfast and dinner skyrockets the price from $3,400 to $3,800!

  3. Jess '12 says:

    The “protest” was poorly organized, publicized, and scheduled; I don’t believe it reflects real student sentiment.

  4. anon says:

    “third of undergraduates have voiced their opposition to the plan (not, of course, to suggest two thirds are in favor of it).”

    Comeon you should know better. All this really means is that 1/3 oppose. end of story. the other 2/3rds may well be in favor or indifferent.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A MIT alumnus recently sent a very powerful letter to the editors of The Tech, our campus newspaper, about his take on the administration’s response to student opposition to dining.

    I highly recommend that prospective students read this letter before coming to MIT: it explains our the student culture and how the administration’s role at MIT has changed.

    The article is here:

  6. @ Anonymous says:

    I highly recommend you /don’t/ read the above article and base it off of anything. The author of the letter in question is disconnected from the reality at MIT (maybe because he doesn’t go here anymore). While I believe that our housemasters’ support of the HDAG was misplaced, they’ve attacked other proposals the administration have wanted.

    -a Simmons Hall 2011er

  7. anon '11 says:

    You forgot kitchens in your description of MIT’s “dining system.” Many of us simply buy food from the grocery store and cook it like regular people.