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Amid reports that the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining is considering the possibility of an automatic meal charge for most undergraduates, the Undergraduate Association Senate last night passed a bill demanding more transparency in the committee’s deliberations.

The Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining, formed in the fall of 2007 by former Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict to investigate the structure of campus dining, recently submitted its first set of proposals to be evaluated by an outside consultant. One of these proposals includes a “minimum nutritional fee” to encourage students to invest in their nutritional well being.

This proposal, variously described over the past week and confirmed by members of the committee, would require undergraduates to pay a certain minimum amount for food-related expenses per term. By making this amount a sunk cost, the proposal hopes to encourage students to establish better nutritional habits. During the term, this money could be applied toward meals at house dining locations and on campus restaurants, gift cards for Star Market or Trader Joe’s, or fraternity, sorority, or independent living group dining membership fees.

The revelation that the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining had already sent proposals to an outside consultant prompted students to call for more transparency. Currently, members of the committee are not supposed to publicly discuss details of its meetings or recommendations. The results of the campus-wide survey conducted by the committee in the spring are also being kept secret.

In an e-mail, Donna M. Denoncourt, associate dean of Residential Life and chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining, said that “the committee has forwarded to the consultant preliminary recommendations based on the data collected thus far.” She noted that “our hope is to have an open avenue for reactions to the recommendations after the Blue Ribbon committee and senior leadership have had an opportunity to review the findings from the consultant.”

Though the idea of a “minimum nutritional fee,” along with many others, has been sent to the committee’s outside consultant for feasibility evaluation, it is still in its early stages. Committee member and UA Vice President Michael A. Bennie ’10 said that he expected the current set of proposals to go through many more iterations before the committee finishes its work. “The student representatives aren’t going to let something happen that will present an unreasonable burden on students,” he said.

Bennie also emphasized that all of the proposals thus far were being considered independently, and that this mandatory dining fee was one of many ideas being considered. For example, James Torres ’10, president of the Dormitory Council and also a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, noted that one initiative that has broad support from the committee is the possibility of adding more breakfast options on campus.

Nevertheless, on Monday night, the UA Senate passed a bill without opposition directing its representatives on the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining to begin reporting publicly on the activities of the committee. In part, the bill directs the UA student representatives to the committee to “publish summaries of all meetings, past and upcoming,” to “make public any proposals that leave the committee,” and to “fully report on all discussions held, all proposals written, and all data considered by the committee to the UA.” The bill was co-sponsored by 13 UA Senators, officers, and other representatives. A copy of the bill is available online at: http://tech.mit.edu/V128/N61/dining/

According to Torres, the committee spent much of its first year gathering data from which to draw its recommendations. Much of fall 2007 was spent with focus groups, while spring 2008 was centered around a detailed campus-wide survey of students and faculty. According to Bennie, that survey received about 3,900 responses and resulted in a 100-page report.

The recent proposals represent the next stage for the committee, in which the committee will iterate through various versions of recommendations, comparing their ideas against the previously gathered data. To help with the work of sifting through the all of the data, the committee has hired the consultant firm Envision Strategies.

According to Denoncourt’s e-mail, Envision Strategies “specializes in strategic planning and operations consulting for restaurants, food service and hospitality, and retail enterprises.” Denoncourt also wrote in her e-mail that the committee’s principal consultant “has conducted studies at 5 of MIT’s peer institutions.” Envision Strategies lists consulting for Harvard University, the University of Washington, Princeton University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Ohio State University among its recent projects on its website.

Envision Strategies should return their evaluations in early January, in time for the next committee meeting later that month, according to Bennie.

The committee has not set a deadline for its final recommendations yet, said Bennie. “I think we’re definitely in the beginning stages,” said Torres. Bennie foresaw the committee working at least until May 2009.