Jan Postma’s work has finally paid off.
Anyone who has been reading the College Council minutes this year should be familiar with Postma’s name. At the October 21 meeting of the College Council, Postma ’99 announced plans to bring the issue of required meal plans to prominence. Six months later, Dining Services has agreed to offer Postma’s proposed five-meal plan for seniors.
“I’m really psyched. Honestly I wasn’t really that hopeful that it was going to be passed through. People in the dining services department seemed really, really reluctant to even offer the five-meal plan just for seniors,” said Postma.
Director of Dining Services James Hodgkins and Vice President Helen Ouellette each said Postma’s lack of hope was unfounded.
“I’m not sure at any point that it was looking problematic. A lot of people needed to think about it and talk about their concerns. There were serious concerns expressed, but that’s not the same as strong opposition,” said Ouellette.
Postma first raised his opposition to requiring students to purchase at least the 10 meal plan in May ’98. At that point, Dining Services had already set its meal plans for the following school year.
Said Postma, “Honestly, the reasons were probably pretty selfish, originally. I was just sick of the food in the dining hall, and I’ve been on the 10 meal plan since sophomore year. Last year I ate about seven meals in the dining hall each week. I was just so sick of having to be on a meal plan and pay for 10 meals a week when I didn’t even eat that many. And I thought that was something that I shouldn’t have to be required to pay for. It should be a matter of choice.”
After writing a paper for his Econ 401 class on the economics of Dining Services, Postma presented his case to Dining Services again, this time with the specific proposal of the five-meal plan. College Council took up the idea and began meeting with Ouellete and Dean Peter Murphy to discuss its implementation.
Said Postma, “When we were working within Dining services we weren’t really getting anything accomplished.”
Again, Hodgkins disagrees with Postma’s version of events.
“I had no resistance to this. Jan floated some ideas and I gave my input,” said Hodgkins.
Hodgkins did say he had some philosophical and financial concerns.
“One of my concerns was that we’re a residential college,” said Hodgkins. “One of our missions as a residential college is to create a community among students. The dining halls are places where students can interact in a community. And if we say students only have to go to the dining hall five times a week, what does that say about us as a residential college?”
Ouellette agreed, saying, “When we looked at it, we began to feel it was an issue of community, and dining is an exceptional experience, and is part of what it means to be at a residential college, rather than specifically a dining issue, and that’s why we wanted to involve all of those people from different areas.”
Postma countered this argument, maintaining that seniors should be independent.
“For freshmen and sophomores, there’s a pretty strong argument for making students eat in the dining hall 10 times a week. But those arguments become less valid as you approach your junior and senior yearâ€”especially your senior year. At that point it almost seems kind of ridiculous.”
This may be the one point on upon which all parties involved could agree.
”But also I think seniors have different issues from younger students, and we wanted to recognize that. Seniors are getting to a different place in their lives, and for some of them it matters a lot to be able to take more responsibility for their upkeep,” said Ouellette.
Hodgkins said one of his concerns is that sanitation and nutrition drop the less meals one eats at the dining hall.
“But these are 22-year old people. They’re intelligent people. The assumption is that they’d be able to take care of themselves. In that sense it’s a senior privilege. But when you extend the option to everyone, you might run into some problems,” said Hodgkins.
Postma also said that the Dining Services feared a loss of revenue and was hesitant to offer the new plan.
“One of the arguments we consistently ran up against was, ‘if we offer the five-meal plan, then too many students are going to sign up for it and we’re going to lose too much revenue to function efficiently as a dining service.’ When you get that argument it kind of makes you wonder about the quality of the food that you’re offering,” said Postma.
Ouellette and Hodgkins both said that Postma was misconstruing their argument, which referred not to loss of revenue but to the lack of adequate kitchen space on campus.
“If people are not going to be getting all of their meals in the dining halls, where are they going to be getting those meals? Are they going to be cooking? Where are they going to be cooking?” said Ouellette.
Ouellete said that the administration, by limiting the plan to just seniors, expects that the number of students who end up cooking more of their own meals will not increase that much.
“We have not worked with any specific models. We did look at how many students currently choose each meal plan. And in fact an overwhelming majority of students opt for full board. So we decided that probably most of the people that would choose the five-meal plan would be people who would otherwise have had to choose the ten meal plan.”
Added Hodgkins, “I don’t assume every senior is going to take the option of the five-meal plan just because they can. This is not the best fit for everyone’s life. We wanted to extend the option to those people for whom it does make sense.”
It is not clear where Dining Services will go from here.
Hodgkins said that his staff is currently looking at ways to add value to the meal plans, including a proposal to enable students on the full board and 14-meal plans to put guest meals on their cards. But Hodgkins does not anticipate offering the five-meal planâ€”which he considers “a senior privilege”â€”to more students.
Meanwhile, Postma, who is very pleased with the new plan, said this is only the beginning of a gradual long-term change.
“We talked it over, and it seemed like the feasible option for next year for the dining halls was the five-meal plan. But the ideal solution would be not having any mandatory meal plans.”
Ouellete stands somewhere in between, and says she is open to more change in the future.
“It’s restricted to seniors partly as a way of starting out slowlyâ€”seeing what the interest is and what the impact is.”
Perhaps the only thing to which the three can agree is that Dining Services will offer a five-meal plan for seniors next yearâ€”a fact which garnered praise.
Said Liz Lee ’01of the Committee on Undergraduate Life, one of the groups involved in the discussion, “Dining Services is definitely heading in a better direction with the relationship it has with students. That relationship could still be much better, but it’s improving.”