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The Real Implications Of the New Dining Plan

Dan Tortorice

To the dismay of students across campus, MIT has instituted a mandatory dining plan. The plan requires undergraduate students living in dormitories to purchase a meal plan for a substantial amount of money at the beginning of the term. Many have debated the merits of this plan, but will the new plan bring better food? Will the new plan restrict student choice too much? Will lunch at Walker begin to be bearable? It seems that administrators feel the mandatory dining plan will be beneficial to the community, while students in general oppose it. This article isn’t about the merits of the plan directly, but why the plan is problematic, even if it brings good results.

Those who support the plan claim it will bring better food to MIT. They claim that the declining balance plan does not provide dining contractors enough revenue to work with. As a result the contractors cut back on quality, raise prices, and reduce dining options. The end product is the terrible food we must endure at MIT. However, instituting a mandatory minimum dining plan will create a pool of money, which will provide enough revenue that dining contractors will be able to produce quality food at an affordable price. They will give us a plethora of dining options, and our every culinary desire will be satiated. Well, not quite, but food quality should go up.

If the administration really believes this then they should realize that the plan is unfair. It is rare that one can make everyone better off without hurting someone. In this case we are making a subset of the population, undergraduates in dormitories, worse off by taking more money from them and limiting their dining options. But this is unfair, because the whole MIT community will benefit from better dining services. Staff, grad students, people who live in FSILGs will all benefit without paying anything. Why should I have to pay to make someone else’s meal better?

Now I’m sure that there are some naysayers in the administration who will say that the undergraduate community will benefit from the changes, so they should have to pay for it. But this, of course, does not address the point. Yes, undergraduates will benefit and we are paying for it, but other people will benefit without paying for it. There are only two fair solutions to this problem. The first is to allow individuals who purchase the dining plan to pay a lower price for the food they buy. That way, everyone who benefits from the change pays. Undergrads pay through the mandatory dining plan, while staff and the like pay through the regular meal price. The second possible fix to this problem would be to tax people who don’t buy the meal plan, and give money to those who do. But I don’t see MIT doing that.

Another problem in the logic of the administrators is not really a problem, per se. It is merely a case of their not seeing the obvious implication of their reasoning. They believe that the community will benefit from a mandatory meal plan. That students will benefit from having meals together in a commons style setting, which may be true. But as we all know dining halls in McCormick and MacGregor shut down when MIT went to a declining balance plan precisely because MIT students chose not to eat in a commons style setting. To say that MIT students will benefit from a commons style dining system is to say that MIT students will benefit from a system that they would not naturally choose.

A lot can be said about the notion that people, when left free to choose, will choose the best system. So maybe MIT students find it better for their dinner to be a 11 p.m. sandwich at Laverde’s after their code finally compiles than a regular 6 p.m. dinner where they sit down with the people they live with. Then again, maybe that lifestyle is unhealthy, and someone should step in and stop us. This seems to be the administration’s logic. But this undoubtedly means that the MIT administration sees itself in a paternalistic role, and that we as students need to be pushed into choosing what is best, for we can not figure that out on our own. Next time someone from the administration tells us that the new dining plan will create better quality food and more MIT community, remember that this necessarily means that MIT undergraduates will be forced to choose another lifestyle, and in the process, pay for other people’s lunch.