Food for thought

Now almost a week into October, the campus population has spent more than a month experiencing the reorganized dining options. Compared to last year, we have two fewer dining halls but one additional Grab ’n Go station and a host of other changes. Most recently, Dining Services has begun to receive feedback from students in the form of meal plan drop/add numbers. While the total number of students purchasing a meal plan has not changed from last semester, more than 400 students have dropped the 21-meal plan, opting in most cases for the 10-meal plan or the five-meal plan.

Four hundred students represent a large portion of the student body – this group that likely once ate the majority of its meals in dining halls has now turned to other options for more than half of its meals. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the drop, but it would be surprising if the recent changes to dining options had not played a role. Of course, students could have chosen different meal plans for other reasons. Perhaps they prefer not to eat in dining halls. Perhaps they don’t eat breakfast. Perhaps they, like the College, are looking to spend their money in the wisest ways possible. Whatever the reason, the College should take care not to overlook these numbers. That students are changing their dining habits is a significant shift that carries implications for mealtime culture across campus.

Mealtimes are important moments in the lives of busy students. When prospectives visit campus, tour guides point out that students take advantage of meals as times for socializing. Entry dinners are a staple of first-year life; for all students, lunch and dinner dates can provide the chance to catch up with friends and the opportunity to take a break between meetings, homework and practices. The fact that meal plans are currently required of all students who live on campus demonstrates how much the College itself cares about this social aspect. If students are eating less frequently in dining halls, the College many need to think creatively about other ways to continue to foster social mealtimes.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it is easy to see that some of the changes have been on point while others are less than ideal. There are more tables everywhere; hours are more flexible and the ’82 Grill has many delicious options and a more welcoming atmosphere. While students spend a bit more time waiting in lines, they also reap benefits like Mission’s new tandoori oven. Still, many lament the loss of late-night equivalency at Lee Snack Bar – both the atmosphere and the food. There, waiting in line was worth it.

In light of the changes, it has been comforting to see that both students and Dining Services staff have displayed an immense amount of patience. Dining Services members continue to have smiles and warm greetings for hungry students, despite their reshuffled work schedules and the higher volume of traffic. Their work and efforts deserve much gratitude. It is most evident that the College has tried to make adjustments to allow on-campus dining to continue to be a comfortable and positive experience for students.

That being said, there are certainly changes that can still be considered to improve options inside and outside of dining halls. Perhaps allowing students to put any leftover meal toward Late Night equivalency at Whitmans’ could be an innovation that has been advocated by multiple students over the years. Other ideas might include improving kitchen facilities in dormitories and opening the option of leaving the meal plan to residents of remote houses like Agard or Garfield. Fostering a culture of cooking in individual houses could introduce another positive dimension into the social aspect of eating on campus. Similarly, Dining Services could respond to student sentiments by transferring at least some late night service back to Lee Snack Bar, which sits depressingly empty each night.

When the decision was made to close Dodd and Greylock dining halls, the administration assured students that the remaining dining options would be adjusted so that, in the end, they would serve students’ needs better (“Falk, Merrill review the College at transitional juncture,” May 12). It is imperative that the administration not forget this claim. During this transitional period, administrators and Dining Services must continue to actively solicit student feedback. Traffic and meal plan numbers are critical, but they are not an adequate barometer of preferences and needs. A well-organized survey could elicit more nuanced information to tailor further adjustments – and, perhaps, make the full board plan more attractive to students again. There is no question that student voices should be a part of the ongoing assessment and adaptation of the dining system.

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