Next time you have something to say about the dining halls, consider talking to the members of MIT’s House Dining Committee (HDC).
Formed after MIT switched to the current dining system, the HDC is comprised of seven undergraduates, the housemasters from each of the five dining dorms, and several representatives from Bon Appétit and Residential Life & Dining (RL&D). Of the seven undergraduate students on the committee, five of them are the dining chairs of the dorms with dining halls (Maseeh, McCormick, Baker, Next, and Simmons), and the other two students are the UA and DormCon dining chairs. The committee meets each month to discuss issues related to dining on campus.
According to the meeting minutes posted on the HDC’s website, topics of discussion range from food quality to enforcement of dining hall rules. At the start of each meeting, the committee discusses data collected by Bon Appétit that includes the previous month’s dining hall usage.
“I help to transmit relevant information back to residents, and to provide student input on the general direction of the house dining program and its policies,” described Cosmos Darwin ’15. The dining chair of Simmons, Darwin sits on the HDC and holds additional regular meetings in Simmons with Bon Appétit staff to discuss specific improvements.
Anastassia Bobokalonova ’16, Baker’s dining chair, said she ran for the position because she wanted to take a more active role in improving the quality of dining at MIT.
“During my first semester, I had become friends with Baker’s Dining Manager and talked to the chefs frequently,” said Bobokalonova. “I had also noticed that my peers (and myself at times) would choose to eat at other dining dorms because of better quality or service. Because I felt connected to both parties and wanted Baker to have healthy and satisfying meals, I ran for Baker Dining Chair at the start of this semester.”
On the other hand, Katherine J. Silvestre ’14, the dining chair of McCormick, ran because she was “not in favor of being on a meal plan.”
“I am vegan and try to eat a healthy diet, so I was concerned about the options that would be available to be on the meal plan,” said Silvestre. “Essentially, I got tired of complaining about having to enroll in the meal plan and decided to take action.” Silvestre believes that MIT meal plans are “pretty comparable” to other universities in price, but worries that the high cost of meal plans drives people away from choosing to live in Tier 1 dorms — newer dorms with higher operation costs — such as McCormick.
Although the dining chairs are meant to voice general student feedback, Maseeh’s dining chair Katelyn M. Rossick ’14 finds that student-submitted complaints are often not constructive.
“A lot of the time, I’ll receive student feedback just saying that the food is awful, which from my perspective isn’t very helpful. We need to receive more comments about specifics,” said Rossick, who recommended using comment cards available at dining halls to voice opinions. “It’s really a lot more productive and can actually help bring about change as far as food quality goes.”
“I feel that representatives from Residential Life & Dining and Bon Appétit are somewhat responsive to student needs. There are some areas where they have addressed concerns and made changes in response to specific issues,” explained Silvestre. “For example, a couple months after the meal plan was implemented in Fall 2011, they moved brunch hours from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. to 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., after students complained that brunch started too late. They also implemented guest passes for this year, which many students wanted. However, there are other issues where Residential Life & Dining is aware of what students would prefer, but has not taken action. For example, the Student Voice survey last year showed that the majority of respondents would be more likely to use a Late Night dining option at Maseeh, McCormick, or Baker. However, neither the Residential Life and Dining nor Bon Appétit has brought up the idea of moving the late night option to the House Dining Committee.”
According to Michael Myers, the Assistant Director of Campus Dining at MIT and a RL&D representative on the HDC, expanding Late Night options to other dorms is currently not feasible due to physical constraints. Unlike other dining dorms, Simmons has its own space for Late Night that is separate from the dining hall. Opening up a Late Night option at Next House, for instance, would mean having to open up the entire dining hall and thus increase operating costs.
Next House dining chair Haley M. Hurowitz ’16 says she would like to see “more meal plan flexibility with what meal plans students can buy based on year and living arrangement.”
Rossick (Maseeh), Bobokalonova (Baker), and Silvestre (McCormick) all mentioned the lack of rollover meals as one of the largest complaints they receive from students.
“By putting the types of restrictions onto the meal plan, that’s what has allowed us to keep the costs as low as they are right now,” stated Myers.
Silvestre says that last spring, the HDC discussed implementing a block meal plan in Fall 2013, but RL&D and Bon Appétit didn’t end up meeting the October 2012 deadline for review of such a proposal. A block plan would have allowed students to use a set number of meals at any time during the semester.
“I was greatly disappointed by this, and I will continue to push for a block meal plan on the House Dining Committee, as I believe it is in the best interest of students,” remarked Silvestre.
“As we were studying and learning more and more about how we might be able to switch into a block plan program as well as other ideas that we’ve had with increased perceived flexibility, we decided that it’s a much larger discussion than just sitting down and saying, ‘Okay. We’re going to switch to block plans next year,’” said Myers. “We need to get senior-level management involvement, corporation board management involvement, and so many stakeholders involved in it that it’s not going to be a quick scenario to be able to switch.”
Naomi Carton, the Associate Dean of RL&D, added, “It’s not that we’re not open, we want to make sure it’s feasible. [For instance], we don’t want you to be paying 18 percent more than you’re already paying on your meal plan.” According to Carton, MIT is contracted with Bon Appétit for another three years. Until the contract is up for renewal, any changes, such as adding rollover, are difficult to make.
Although guest passes were recently implemented this year, students are not allowed to “give” other students meals by letting in swipe in with their IDs, something that MIT Dining has noticed occurring.
“When you’re purchasing your meals, those are on your ID. It does not easily switch to another person’s meal plan because that is not that person’s money,” said Carton. “There’s a lot of logistical and ethical implications that all plays into [meal transference].”
In addition, Myers stated that the unused meals are actually factored into the cost of meal plans. If the number of unused meals decreased, Myers indicated that the cost of meal plans would increase.
The HDC welcomes feedback from students on its website. “I think good communication is the key to making the dining plan work and reflect what students really want,” said Darwin.