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Added Costs Aim to Build Community Dining

By Brian Keegan

If you are wondering where all your friends are around dinnertime, you may be missing out on a broad initiative to build stronger residential communities through mandatory dormitory dining plans.

The initiative faces controversy, and students have questioned the possibility of its expansion to East Campus, new dining restrictions at McCormick Hall, and the fairness for freshmen required to live on campus but affiliated with fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups.

The preferred dining plan will remain voluntary for residents of East Campus and Senior House according to Larry G. Benedict, Dean of Student Life. “There is no movement, or thinking, or momentum of any kind. I don’t know how I can say it more strongly. It isn’t going to happen.”

Residents of East Campus and Senior House raised concerns about the expansion of mandatory dining plans to their residences after four west campus dormitories started requiring mandatory membership in preferred dining plans.

Richard D. Berlin III, director of MIT Campus Dining, confirmed that there were no plans for making East Campus and Senior House residents mandatory members of the preferred dining plan. He said that Pritchett Grill is different from residential dining at other dormitories because it “isn’t physically located in the dormitory, it’s not a pure house dining program.”

The opening of new or renovated dining facilities in Simmons Hall, Next House, Baker House, and McCormick over the past three years have been accompanied by phasing in of mandatory dining plans for students living there.

All residents of Simmons, freshmen through juniors living at Next and Baker, and freshmen and sophomores at McCormick are required to purchase a $250 per term “preferred dining membership” that provides a 50 percent discount on “most purchases at the four House Dining locations, Pritchett Dining on East Campus, the Amherst St. Deli (kosher dining), and the Simmons late night caf ” according to the dining Web site. The program is voluntary for all other MIT students.

Some students say the preferred dining program helps to build a community dining experience.

David A. Nedzel ’07, president of the Simmons, said he believes in mandatory dining because Simmons was founded that way from the beginning. “This program was in place before anyone moved into Simmons,” he said. “It does encourage a sense of community when people sit down and share experiences.”

Benedict said that Simmons students created a community dining plan modeled off of those at Cambridge University. Afterwards, other residences approached the dining office to start similar programs. Most recently, MacGregor House has begun examining the feasibility of re-opening a residential dining facility to include the mandatory dining plan, according to Benedict and Berlin.

Sisi Zhu ’08, Undergraduate Association dining chair, said, “People in these dorms have a love-hate relationship with the program, but they’ve come to accept it. The companies have to pay the workers a living wage.”

Many students have criticized the economics of these mandatory dining plans.

Christopher C. Hemond ’06 did not choose the option to join. He said he would have to go to Next Dining four times a week and spend between $7.50 and $8.00 each time to recover the membership fee. “I’m a senior now, and I don’t spend as much time there as I did when I was a freshman.”

East Campus resident and UA Vice-President Jessica H. Lowell ’07 said that “EC residents do not want mandatory meal plans because they consider it a bad deal. It’s priced like a restaurant even though most people would not eat at a restaurant every day. I know people who can feed themselves off $500 for a term.”

Berlin called the plans a “very modest commitment by students,” comparing it to the mandatory dining program at Harvard that costs upwards of $4,000. MIT subsidizes up to a third of the cost of residential dining from sources including the fees paid by vendors and retailers like Anna’s and LaVerde’s, according to Berlin. “It’s easy to get your money’s worth out of the plan,” he said.

Students criticized attempts to regulate how they can eat.

Harvey C. Jones ’06, president of East Campus, said he “understands the concerns about the economics of providing cheap food, but on the other hand, students should have the responsibility and autonomy to make their own decisions.” He said residents at East Campus are evenly split among eating in campus dining, cooking, and ordering in for food.

Other students say they want the dining halls to be open at more convenient hours.

No Styrofoam Policy

As a part of its mandatory preferred dining plan, McCormick Hall instituted a new policy that eliminated take-out options from its dining hall. There remain containers for leftovers, but they are not large enough for an entire meal.

Professor Charles H. Stewart III, housemaster for McCormick, said that he proposed the policy after he found that dining staff were putting the china plates away unused every night because students were taking the food to go.

“I would come down to our new dining hall and find it almost deserted at 7 p.m.,” he said. “People were just taking the food up to their rooms.”

Stephanie H. Kim ’07, president of McCormick, said the intent of McCormick Dining was to create “a more social atmosphere.” She said that it was not an issue of providing dining services because Baker House and the Student Center are nearby.

Kim said that the no take-out policy was never brought before her in a meeting, but Stewart said that it was never the intention for McCormick dining to be “another take-out service.” “I have a duty to make sure our house programs achieve their goal,” he said.

Jones said that imposing a top-down plan can create problems among students with dietary, monetary, or other restrictions. He said that MIT is a place where students should have responsibility and autonomy. “People cook together and eat in lounges. People eating alone in their rooms isn’t a problem.”

Stewart said he has not heard “a single valid argument” against the no-styrofoam policy. “If students are in a hurry, they have zillions of options elsewhere on campus.” He said the time that it takes to wait in line for food preparation and checkout and the time walking back up a room is no more than it would take to eat a meal in the hall with the rest of the McCormick community. “We are trying to create a sense of community here.”

Stewart said he would encourage other houses to adopt similar policies. “The benefits of community dining are so great, and MIT recognizes this. Otherwise, we should close down these expensive dining halls as we cannot justify the cost of them as only being a means of providing food,” he said.

Freshmen getting fleeced?

Some on-campus students affiliated with FSILGs feel they are being double billed for dining.

J. Shamus Cunningham ’09 said, “I pay 250 a month to eat at my fraternity. They reimburse me the $250 to eat at Baker, but I still eat at the house. It’s extremely unfair that some people should have to double-pay.”

Arjun Naskar ’09 said, “I don’t like how they force us to have a plan. My fraternity is on campus so I can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner there.” Naskar said he was not aware of many fraternities reimbursing their freshmen, although he receives a reimbursement for the preferred dining plan.

Brandon H. Suarez ’09 says he pays $500 per term at LCA for food on top of the $250 for Baker’s preferred dining. “We eat at the house at least once a week. At first I had a problem with being forced into preferred dining, but I spend a good deal of money there so I come out ahead.”

John C. McGonagle ’09 said, “I hardly ever use the Next House plan. I eat at LaVerde’s or at Sigma Nu.” McGonagle said the sense of community at Next House “isn’t even close” to what he finds at his fraternity.

UA Senate Speaker Andrew T. Lukmann ’07, said that the issue of FSILG-affiliated freshmen living in residences with mandatory dining plans “is an inequity and deserves consideration.”

Berlin said that the Campus Dining board looked at the issue of FSILG members living in residences with mandatory dining plans and that it “did not seem to be a big issue.”

Benedict said that this matter is a concern, but there is no resolution. “There is some unfairness to being double-billed,” but he said it has not been the most common complaint in his office.