It is the duty of every institution to take measures to ensure the health and wellbeing of its students. While MIT does make significant efforts to encourage healthy living, it has yet to find a substantial solution to the issue of campus dining.
The matter of campus dining has been under scrutiny for several years now. Programs such as weekly meal plans and all-you-can-eat buffets have been experimented with. However, after many changes, influenced to a great extent by the varied student responses to the different plans, as well as the inability of the programs to be financially self-sustaining, the current system of house dining membership has been adopted.
Under the present system, students can obtain a 50 percent discount on meals in the five dining halls, namely Baker, Simmons, McCormick and Next in West Campus and Ashdown House in the North West side of campus, on a charge of $300 a semester. As a result, a meal originally available for $9-$10 in the hall, can be obtained for half the price. This is almost always a losing deal for students. As per calculations, on the whole, students can only afford to miss about two or three meals in a dining hall per semester to avoid losing money on the membership.
In May 2007, the Baker House dining committee issued a report showing that the average Baker resident loses $125 per semester because of membership in the house dining program. Only about 13 percent of residents break even (The Tech, Volume 127, Issue 66). Though the risk of losing money does ensure some consistency of food habits for the students, the risk adds pressure to dine at one of the residential dining halls every evening, which is not favorable to most students.
The large part of the dining problem lies in the locations of the dining halls; having dining halls in five of the residences is not adequate. The dining facilities are used primarily by the residents of these halls, as these students have been forced to pay for dining membership. However, for many of the non-residents, dining in these halls is not an attractive proposition. Many students do not wish to dine in a place where they do not know people. In addition, the dining hours are usually inconvenient to members of athletic teams and student activities that often meet at the same time.
It is particularly telling that MIT, known for the predominance of our nocturnal culture, has only the Simmons late night café (which is isolated across Briggs field from the bulk of west campus dorms) and the convenience stores (MacGregor and LaVerde’s) open till a substantial hour into the night. As for the food, there is a paucity of variety available in the dining halls. The primary reason for this is perhaps that the contract for all the west-side dining halls rests with the same catering company.
Also, a noticeable fact is that the actual original price of the meals in the halls appears to be significantly inflated. A dish similar to one that is priced at $8 in the halls is available for about $6 in one of the other establishments on campus.
The residence dining halls have no provision for breakfast or lunch. As a freshman, I am yet to experience the Boston/Cambridge winter. However, I shudder to think what I will do if I there is a snow storm one weekend and I need to get breakfast in the morning. There will probably be no other option than to walk down to the Student Center in the biting cold.
In my opinion, while kitchens are important, every house should have a dining hall open for at least some key times, even if it is not operated on as large of a scale as the five major halls. In addition to an assured meal in one’s own residence for students, a dining hall fosters a feeling of community. This approach has already been adopted in the construction of the Ashdown House.
The halls could be open for some time in the morning, preferably for breakfast since students usually don’t come back to their dorms between classes. Another advantage of this plan would be that in the case that students don’t have their first class of the day until the afternoon, they won’t necessarily need to leave their dorms early in the morning to obtain a meal.
Most universities in the United States offer students with a large variety of dining programs. For instance, the University of Florida has two dining halls, where myriad dining preference options are offered to students. These choices include 7 meals a week programs, 21 meals a week plans or even unlimited dining.
True, the cost of these is way more than $300 a semester, but the availability of these options is a big plus for students. There is remarkable consistency in the food habits of their students, as opposed to the erratic food habits of the average MIT student.
Improvements to the system of campus dining should be an imperative — both to ensure better nutrition for students and to reflect the high standards our Institute has established in other elements of campus community and student life.
Radhika Malik is a member of the Class of 2012 who doesn’t want to leave her dorm to get a muffin.