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MIT Food Service -- The Choice Is Yours

Column by Joe Harrington

The Tech's editorial ["Food Services Must Be Improved," Sept. 21] certainly pointed out some poor situations, but didn't address the alternatives or solutions very well. Mostly for the benefit of the 2,000 or so new students who just stumbled onto campus, I'd like to point out some of the other places to get decent food, even late at night. Also, there are a few simple things MIT can do to cover the odd hours and distant locations without risking the loss of a lot of money, and several things community members can do to get the food service they want.

There are alternatives to MIT Food Service on and near campus which are cheaper, faster, friendlier, and provide more and better food. These include the food vendor trucks (temporarily relocated from behind Building 66 to the lot across Vassar Street from Building 20) and the Kendall Square Food Court merchants. From the trucks, you can get a large serving (easily two meals for light eaters) of Vietnamese food for $3 that will compete with any of the local Oriental restaurant fare. Similar value is available from the half-dozen or so other vendors. They span the range from Oriental to Italian to American cuisine, are quick to serve you (the lines can be long if you go on the hour, but they move fast at many of the vendors), and are generally run by polite and friendly people.

The food court, located between the Coop and the Marriot, even provides a place to sit, indoors or out, and people to clean the tables. These vendors cover a range of cuisine just as large as that of the trucks. They are a little less personable and cost a little more, but they are indoors and have a wider range of meals and snacks, including good coffee, salad bars, and ice cream. Rebecca's, across the street, offers competitive discounts on their very fine food for students with MIT ID's. If you want to save food for later, almost all of the truck and Food Court vendors will serve your food into a reusable container that you bring (the Vietnamese truck gave out Tupperware containers for a while; they said it paid for itself in saved disposable containers in just 20 servings).

The major drawbacks to both of these groups of vendors are of course their hours and (for the Food Court) their location. Most of the trucks are only open for lunch, and the Food Court closes at 7 p.m. However, there are decent all-night snacks (burritos and such) at the 24-Hour Coffee House in the Student Center, and some trucks have occasionally made the dorm rounds at night. Here is where MIT has an untapped resource. According to Associate Director of Food Services John T. McNeill, MIT grants four truck vendor parking permits at any one time. MIT gets two or three permit requests a week from about twenty vendors, and their interest spans all times of the day. More permits are not granted because of constraints on parking space, according to McNeill, and because of a lack of a perceived market, according to Larry Maguire, director of housing and food services. However, despite a city regulatory environment very unfriendly to truck sales, the market for food from the trucks is so profitable that the number of vendors parking on nearby streets has grown in recent years and competition for good locations is fierce (sometimes excessively so).

The food services office would do the MIT community a great service if it were to allow more food vendor trucks to park in a wider range of spaces, especially during the peak lunch and dinner hours. The benefit of two parking spaces behind building 20 or even (gasp!) in the high-brow central parking zone is far outweighed by the benefit of several hundred meals served to the community daily from one truck. Kresge lot is another likely location, as are the loading areas of the dorms at night. Putting additional vendors in different locations would serve a greater portion of the community, rather than cutting into the business of the four established trucks, and a look at the truck lines around lunch time will dispel the lack-of-interest argument. To extend the availability, perhaps the permits could be granted, on the condition that a vendor sell during less popular hours or at the more far-flung locations for part of each month. Such additional requirements should be undertaken only after meeting with community members (particularly dormitory residents) and the vendors to get their input, so that the quality and profitability remains high and the price low, and so that the right hours, locations, and amounts of service are chosen.

As for improving the existing dining service, a few lessons can be learned from the food court and truck operations: have many independent vendors in the space, so they compete with each other and keep prices down. For much of the year, the space used in Lobdell Court could be cut down in favor of some outdoor tables, perhaps located on the unused lawn adjacent to Massachusetts Avenue. The workers in some of the trucks are amazingly fast (watch the Goosebeary lady sometime!); those at ARA are not. The truck-workers' livelihoods depend on the rate at which they serve meals. The food service workers' do not. If the workers were paid in part according to the number of meals they served (at least in peak hours when there is a flow of people), they would work faster and fewer would be needed, which would lower the overall cost.

The involvement of the community in the shaping of MIT's food service has varied over time, but recent changes show that they do respond to the voices of students. If you take the time to gripe to your friends or in the pages of The Tech, you should also take the time to talk to one of the several representative student bodies, or to the Office of Housing and Food Services directly. I found both McNeill and Maguire to be very receptive to my suggestions and ready to give me the information that I needed for this column -- despite the fact that they were blasted in these pages on Tuesday. If you have a constructive suggestion, write it down and send it to Maguire or McNeill via e-mail. If many people support the same idea it indicates a community desire, so even if you think it's obvious or that someone has said it before, don't hesitate. Given that the MIT food service subsidy is gone this year (by student demand, and good riddance), the one thing we can't ask for is to run the existing services at a loss, and that may mean that all-night, full-service dining facilities are just not in the cards. However, the trucks potentially fill this niche, and could be located more conveniently near the dormitories. Let the truck vendors know if you'd buy evening and nighttime meals from them, and what locations you would find most convenient. Finally, the one thing that speaks loudest is money, or the loss thereof. If you prefer the offerings of the trucks and the Food Court over Morss Hall in Walker Memorial and Lobdell, eat there. After all, we vote with our mouths and wallets.