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Facing an average annual deficit of $500,000 from the MIT Dining Program, the Division for Student Life will be working with MIT community leaders this spring in an effort to improve the current dining program. While there is no strict timeline for making changes to dining, Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo hopes to prepare a plan by the end the academic year that will reduce financial loss while preserving student choice. As of now, no changes to the dining program are being made.

This past week, Colombo met with some of the high-level UA members to explore new ways to approach dining. Participants at the meeting divided the MIT community into three separate groups: cook for yourself, self-sustaining organizations, and house dining. Colombo plans to improve dining by tailoring to each community and meeting with housemasters, executive dining committees, and dining chairs.

The “cook for yourself” community includes those students who feed themselves and do not participate in the house dining program. Colombo said that DSL is looking for new ways to assist this community including maintenance of dorm kitchens and giving advice on healthy food options.

For example, this past semester, DSL Senior Administrative Assistant Victoria Davenport offered culinary classes in one of the East Campus kitchens to teach students how to prepare meals on their own.

Self-sustaining communities include fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups that offer a room and board plan to their members. Colombo made it clear that students in self-sustaining and ‘cook for yourself’ communities will not be forced to participate in house dining plans.

Several recommendations have been made by the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee and Institute-Wide Planning Task Force to improve house dining. The final reports of both called for the replacement of the current $300 half-off meal fee in favor of a declining-balance system. In the proposed declining-balance system, students living in dorms with dining halls would pay a $600 semesterly fee and, in exchange, receive dining dollars, money similar to TechCASH that can be spent on food. According to the Task Force’s final report, the new system would net approximately $200,000 by 2014 if implemented in Fall 2010. The task force’s final report can be found at http://web.mit.edu/instituteplanning/reports.html.

No recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Committee and Institute-Wide Task Force are binding. Instead, all recommendations were presented to Colombo, and he will work with community leaders before deciding the direction dining will take.

An all-student Dining Proposal Committee was formed by the UA in March 2009 to produce a report recommending dining reforms. Its report, released on May 4, 2009, recommends changing the current $300-per-semester House Dining Membership to a $300 declining balance plan and suggests closing three dining halls in favor of a large, centralized dining hall, among other recommendations.

Tom Gearty, DSL Director of Communications, said that the DSL is looking for a robust dining program that gives students choice. Meal options should be varied and be able to tend to both dietary restrictions and nutritional needs, The DSL is working to craft solutions that reduce or eliminate the annual deficit.

UA President Mike A. Bennie ’10 met with Colombo last week to discuss dining. Bennie said that he believes the success of the new plan will be partly determined by how well the DSL implements it. “It’s about the details,” Bennie said. “For example, how will the new plan deal with IAP?”

UA Dining Committee Chair Adam Bockelie ’11 also met with Colombo to discuss the state of dining. Several rumors were circulating around campus about the removal and lack of upkeep of kitchens, but Bockelie said that they were all false. “Some claim that the quality of kitchens are being neglected,” said Bockelie, “but you can easily submit a work order to fix whatever is broken.”

Next month, Bockelie, Colombo, and others involved with dining will be traveling down to Yale University to observe and talk with those behind their dining program. Colombo said that he does not intend to duplicate Yale’s program at MIT, but instead is searching for ideas and possible improvements that could be made at MIT.