Dining Services catches meal equivalency glitch

Those still lining up for free cheese fries and mozzarella sticks after dinner are in for a bitter surprise. Last week Dining Services discovered the glitch in their system that for the past few months had granted students snack bar points even if they had already swiped for dinner, a mishap that students were quick to take advantage of as word swiftly spread across campus. The problem was fixed on Sunday, and 45 students were turned away from snack bar that evening when trying to swipe after dinner.

In August and again in December, Dining Services updated its food accounting system, a program that controls at what time students can swipe for meal points, and believes that the error occurred during this process. A mishap during the upgrade altered the equivalency time, essentially allowing students to use their dinner points from the following day’s meals. As the next day’s meals were always accessible on any given day, students were granted dinner equivalency at snack bar regardless of their meal consumption that day.

Since the food accounting system underwent two rounds of upgrades, it is unclear when the extended equivalency precisely began. Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining, attributed the error to the December upgrade, although students have been using extra snack bar points since earlier in the semester.

Paloma Diaz-Dickson ’11 first began using additional swipes in early November and continued to do so regularly. “It was very useful. For days I would eat dinner but then stay up late doing work or hanging out in Paresky,” she said, adding that the news spread rapidly. “All of Williams pretty much knew and went crazy. People just thought they had eternal snack bar points. It was great.” Another student said that he and his friends discovered the extended equivalency in October.

According to Abayasinghe, Dining Services discovered the glitch in late December when a manager noticed students he had seen eat dinner line up for equivalency. After the students explained that they had points from missing breakfast, he realized the system had malfunctioned and informed Abayasinghe, who began investigating the situation. From studying a student’s meal history, Dining Services identified the exact problem last week and finished fixing the system over the weekend.

Dining Services could not provide numbers for how many students received additional equivalency. A snack bar employee who asked to remain anonymous acknowledged that “numbers had been astronomical recently” and added that lines had been more manageable on Monday night after the glitch had been fixed.

Abayasinghe did not yet calculate the total loss in revenue from the additional snack bar points, but acknowledged that it may be significant given the different pricings of each meal. Currently, breakfast equivalency at snack bar is priced at $4.50 and dinner at $7. Abayasinghe said that Dining Services will continue to check its systems to ensure any future mishaps are caught earlier.

The recent end of extended equivalency has prompted a wider debate among students, many of whom argue that they should get the full number of meals on their meal plan regardless of when they choose to swipe for them.

“If I’m paying for 21 meals, why shouldn’t I be able to get them?” said Brian Dolezal ’09. “It’s really nice to have dinner followed by a late night feast, and if I paid for it, why not?”

A sophomore who asked to remain anonymous agreed. “It should be 21 meals per week, no matter which specific meals you go to,” he said. “For example, I should be able to get a meal at 2 a.m. if I missed breakfast and woke up at 11 a.m. – that is what’s not fair. People who sleep late get punished.” He added that for student-athletes like himself, the restrictive hours for card-swipe meals gets frustrating, “especially considering how dead our town goes after 5 p.m.”

Abayasinghe does not foresee the College adopting a system where meals would roll over. “The option of equivalency was always meant to be for students who had missed dinner,” Abayasinghe said. “At the end of the day we just want to be able to provide the best level of service to the kids, but it is how it is.”