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Dining Plan Stresses Profitability, Choice

By Jennifer Krishnan

NEWS EDITOR

The Campus Dining Review Board has identified participation by choice and financial self-sufficiency as major goals for MIT’s dining system in a preliminary “information packet” that begins the task of redesigning MIT’s dining system.

The report, which was released on November 20, acknowledges “that the most important aspect of dining is that quality food be provided at a fair price,” said Jennifer M. Farver G, co-chair of the Graduate Student Council Housing and Community Affairs Committee and a member of the Campus Dining Board.

Special Assistant to the President and Chancellor Kirk D. Kolenbrander, who serves as interim chair of the Board, said that more specific recommendations will follow before the end of this term.

Dining system losing millions

The information packet also reveals that MIT’s dining system is losing money. Expenditures on prepared food on campus exceeded revenues by more than $2 million during the 2001 fiscal year.

“That’s two million dollars that you and I don’t have to do other things,” Kolenbrander said. “It’s important that we all understand that one way or another, we pay for it.”

MIT is “alone in higher education in subsidizing dining,” Kolenbrander said.

The packet recommends that the system become financially self-sufficient in its operations, providing direct feedback to providers through participant expenditures.

“That has strong implications,” Kolenbrander said.

High costs attributed to variety

Kolenbrander said that the wide range of dining options on campus increases costs for vendors and the Institute itself. Aramark spends a great deal of “time and energy trying to provide many food options,” which is an expensive endeavor, Kolenbrander said. He suggested that MIT might need “a contraction in the range of services something like a Lobdell can provide.”

MIT also spent more than $1 million on personal cooking last year. These expenses include kitchen renovations and utility costs.

Data for the food trucks were not included in the information packet because they were not available to the board.

However, Kolenbrander said the food trucks “stand as a powerful example of the benefits of many vendors, strong competition, and clear accountability paths.”

Student reactions mixed

Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life co-chair Parul Deora ’04 said the main concerns she had heard from students were “the possible threat to existing communities, the mandatory plan, and the quality of service.”

“All three of those concerns were addressed [by the board], with the support of personal cooking and the stand that mandatory is not acceptable,” she said.

The packet also emphasized the lack of a strong definition of “community” with regards to dining.

“There is no shared understanding of community ... but it has been used to justify significant changes” at MIT, Kolenbrander said.

Vikash K. Mansinghka ’04, who started a petition against the proposed mandatory meal plan earlier this term, was pleased with the goals laid out in the packet.

“I’m fairly happy with the Dining Board’s recent report,” Mansinghka said. “It captures most of the ‘common sense’ elements I consider critical.” These include optional participation, direct financial feedback for vendors, and extensive student feedback.

Deora also said “there are more solid action steps that need to be outlined.”

The packet is “not as detailed as some are going to hope,” she said. “People had high expectations for tangible results ... but this is a good starting step.”

Mansinghka hoped for better clarification on community dining. “I wish the statement regarding the lack of an understanding of community had been stronger,” Mansinghka said. He also said the packet needed more specific examples of dining experiments.

Kolenbrander said that when Director of Campus Dining Richard D. Berlin III “[came] out with five plans, [people expected] the Campus Dining Board to come up with a sixth plan that you could line up point by point.” Instead, the board chose to “redefine the vision of what dining at MIT is,” Kolenbrander said.

Aramark contract expires soon

Aramark currently holds two contracts for campus dining service, covering all the prepared food on campus, but the contract expires at the end of this academic year.

“The odds of Aramark or any other company controlling that much of MIT dining [in the future] are very small,” Kolenbrander said.

He said MIT would have to come up with a new system incorporating more accountability for vendors, but “it has to be attractive to the vendor, too.”

“I think we will get some strong bids” from other vendors, Kolenbrander said.

Farver said students could expect to see significant changes to campus dining as early as fall of 2002.

The board plans to gather feedback from the community during the Independent Activities Period, Farver said.

The packet can be found at .