Longer Dinner Hours Prove Elusive

Later hours would require drastic changes in HUDS' dining program

Every year, a Harvard undergraduate pays about $4,430 for board, which translates into a system where students can take unlimited amounts of food during mealtime, and eat as many meals as they wish.

But in reality, when it comes to having dinner, Harvard students seem to find their “unlimited” meal plan quite limiting.

Almost 90 percent of students report that they miss dinner at least once a week, and more than a quarter of students say that they miss dinner at least three times a week, according to a survey of 270 undergraduates conducted by the Undergraduate Council’s Student Affairs Committee (SAC) last year.

Extracurricular meetings, inconvenient timing, and academic conflicts were cited by those students polled by SAC as the reasons they fail to get back to a dining hall by the 7:15 p.m. closing deadline, forcing many to spend money on top of that which they pay for board to buy dinner from other establishments.

Despite long-term discussions between students, the Undergraduate Council (UC), and executives of Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), no concrete changes have been made to address these concerns, which have existed for decades. The 87 percent of students who said they would eat dinner after 7:15 p.m. given the option may be frustrated, but HUDS says that the students are asking the impossible.

Achieving longer dining hall hours without significantly increasing the price of eating at Harvard would require major structural and philosophical changes to the way HUDS operates its residential dining program, according to interviews with HUDS officials and student leaders.

Other colleges achieve later hours by operating fewer dining facilities, either in general or later at night, or offering meal plans that are more limited than Harvard’s, and some configuration of these systems could allow for later dining hours in Cambridge as well.

AN EVOLVING RECIPE

When University President A. Lawrence Lowell conceived of the House system in 1928, he envisioned dining halls as the pillar of the House community, where students could eat communally while engaging in stimulating discussions to supplement their classroom learning experiences. But the residential system in 1928 was much different than it is today as student lifestyles have created new needs that could not have been anticipated.

“The internet and having PCs has made people stay up later than they used to and we’re becoming much more of a 24-hour community and the college needs to adapt,” former SAC Chair Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06 says.

Part of that adaptation is feeding students at much later hours, says Chadbourne, who is also a member of the HUDS Student Advisory Committee. According to the SAC data, over 50 percent of undergraduates stay up past 2 a.m., which means that most students are still awake for seven hours after dinner ends.

Since at least 1987, the issue of dining hall hours has been a consistent topic of discussion across campus, Chadbourne says.

UC presidential candidates have consistently included it on their agendas, and despite periodic swells of support, the meal schedule at the College has remained roughly the same since the 1970s.

The problem stems primarily from the multiple functions of dining halls on campus, as both distributors of sustenance and House community centers.

These two roles can conflict, as the need to fulfill student dining and scheduling needs clashes with the costs of operating individual dining halls in each House—vital to maintaining them as the center of the individual residential unit.

“Students live in a community, and take their meals in the same dining room, not only with other undergraduates of different classes, types and early associations, but also with the Tutors whom they may meet in off hours at breakfast, lunch or dinner,” Lowell said in 1930.

And the present dearth of student space has forced student groups to take over Junior Common Rooms and other House spaces for meetings, Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd says, making dining even more important as space for unscheduled House socializing.

HUDS Executive Director Ted A. Mayer also says that dining halls have become important as social spaces in recent years.

“This space and this need is a fairly recent kind of thing,” Mayer says. “The house system has been evolving and has changed a lot.”

“I would describe the community building role of House dining halls as CRITICAL and unparalleled in the rest of higher education,” Zachary A Corker ’04, who is currently spearheading Loker Pub planning, writes in an e-mail.

Along with the use of individual dining halls, the system of compulsory unlimited meals for everyone in the 12 Houses is extremely unusual.

At Harvard, every student living on campus—except those in the Dudley Coop—pays exactly the same amount for the meal plan regardless of how many meals they eat or how much they eat at any meal. Each student thus pays to eat the average number of meals that undergraduates swipe into—which this year is approximately 14 per week, according to Raymond Cross, Director for Finance, Information Technology, and Procurement at HUDS.

“The meal plan is designed to provide access equally to students despite socio-economic background,” Mayer says.

The current system of providing equal access to dining halls for everyone has been in place since the inception of the House system, says HUDS Communication Coordinator Jami M. Snyder.

“Dining has been unlimited at Harvard since the House system began,” Snyder writes. “In my understanding, prior to the House system, meals were very different experiences for the different social classes at Harvard, and the communal atmosphere of the Houses at Cambridge and Oxford were an inspiration to President Lowell and the others behind the House system here.”

Because every student that lives on campus must purchase the $2,215-per-semester meal plan, dining hall managers and staff are able to allow students to remove food from the dining hall, says Rudolph Gautschi, Director of Residential Dining.

Without an unlimited system for everyone, one student with unlimited meals could take food for another student on a limited or pay-per-item plan. This could encourage dishonesty, and taken to the extreme, could theoretically allow one student paying for unlimited meals to supply the entire campus with food.

But Mayer notes that there are still inequalities in a system which charges all students the same amount. Male athletes apparently average more than 14 meals a week, while other demographics average far fewer, Mayer says. Those who choose to eat fewer than 14 meals a week in a dining hall are thus effectively subsidizing those who eat more, Mayer says.

“Students are surprisingly consistent,” Mayer says. “The plan is not based on eating 21 meals a weak, some eat more, and some eat less.”

FROZEN IN PLACE

In order to minimize costs to the College, and in turn, to students in the form of board, HUDS operates a shift system that combines full-time and part-time dining hall workers to cook and assist with meals.

The a.m. shift begins with set up before breakfast, the least attended meal, and ends after lunch. The p.m. shift begins at lunch and lasts through dinner, according to Mayer. The staff at dinner, which is the most popular meal, is also supplemented with part-time workers.

The problem with extending meal hours is two-fold, Meyer says. First, by increasing the number of hours that meals are served, HUDS would increase the average number of meals consumed above 14, because the students that are currently forced to have dinner out would instead be able to eat in dining halls. This would therefore require HUDS to spend more money on food, a cost that would be passed on to the College.

“Shifts in dining hours would most likely increase the average number of meals eaten per week as it is unlikely that students would support changes in hours that would reduce meals eaten,” Cross writes.

In addition, the p.m. shift would be pushed back by a later dinner period, eliminating the overlap during lunch and creating a staffing shortage. In order to accommodate longer dining hall hours, HUDS would have to hire more workers.

Currently the HUDS residential budget, which is approximately $27.7 million a year, is distributed into three major categories. Wages and benefits make up 46 percent of the money from the mealplan, food costs 30 percent, and other expenses such as supplies, utilities, laundry, and rubbish removal constitute the remaining 24 percent, according to Cross.

Meyer, Cross, and Gautschi says they’re ready to provide the services that students want, if the College is willing to pay for it. But a large term-bill hike due to changes to the meal plan is unlikely in the near future, Chadbourne says.

Suzy M. Nelson, the College’s new Associate Dean of Residential Life, says that the Committee on College Life will address the issue of dining hall hours this year, possibly through a separate task force.

The UC has also brought up the issue of dining hall hours in the Committee on House Life (CHL), current SAC Chair Tara Gadgil ’07 says.

“The College officially recognized that the dining hall hours as currently offered are not sufficient,” UC President Matthew J. Glazer ’06 said of the CHL meeting.

A DIFFERENT KETTLE OF FISH

Dining systems at other schools offer elements that Mayer says could help extend hours, if students and Masters were willing to accept them.

The options boil down to two main themes: fewer dining halls or a limited meal plan.

Of the eight ivies, Dartmouth College allows its students to get food on campus latest at night, but requires all of its undergraduates to put money towards a “Declining Balance Account” which functions as a debit account. Students’ balances are deducted on a per item basis, and students are given the choice of 4 different purchasing plans varying from $420 to $1,250 in cost.

Requiring students to pay for each item makes them more conscious of what they take, resulting in less food being removed from the dining halls, and therefore less food that dining services has to buy and prepare.

Dartmouth also runs far fewer dining halls than Harvard College’s 14, with the Thayer Dining Hall Food Court open until 1 a.m. every day and a snack bar open until 2:30 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, according to the Dartmouth Dining Services website.

Mayer says that though possible, the adoption of a debit-per-item system like Dartmouth’s would have to require far stricter monitoring of the dining halls and lines to check out, resulting in dining areas resembling the Science Center’s Greenhouse. It would also conflict with the current philosophy of providing equal access to dining for all students.

Among comparable colleges, Yale’s dining situation most resembles that of Harvard in terms number and function of dining halls with one major difference—Elis are allowed to swipe until 9 p.m.

At Yale, the residential college’s dining halls function much the same way as those at Harvard with two exceptions: there are multiple meal plans, most of which are limited, and not all dining halls are open all the time, according to the Yale University Dining Services (YUDS) website.

YUDS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

At Yale, the residential colleges close for dinner at 7 p.m. but a campus-wide dining room known as “The Commons” remains open with limited dinner offerings until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It is closed from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. In addition, only two of the 12 residential colleges serve breakfast on weekends.

Yale upperclassmen choose between five different meal plans, while freshmen are required to purchase the 21 meals-a-week plan. The other meal plans range from a $2,285-per-semester “Unlimited” meal plan to the $1,740-per-semester “Any 10” meal plan.

But according to Chadbourne, who has been working with HUDS on the issue of dining hall hours for three years, most Harvard students say they are not willing to sacrifice the universal unlimited meal plan in order to allow HUDS to save enough money to extend dining hall hours.

“When people think through [the Yale and Dartmouth models] it creates a weird socio-economic impact that has been something the College wants to avoid,” Chadbourne says.

APPROACHING A FORK

The HUDS Student Advisory Committee has considered two primary options: rotating closures and extended grill hours, Chadbourne says.

Under a rotating closure system where houses would take turns closing for different meals or portions of meals, HUDS would be able to move staff and shifts in order to accommodate serving dinner to later hours. But Mayer notes that while this solves the problem of keeping costs for staffing flat, it does not address the cost of the additional food students would consume in lieu of the meals they buy out after 7:15 p.m. now. It would also cut down on in-house social time, since students would occasionally have to eat in other houses when their dining halls were closed.

Tess M. Ponce ’07 says that she doesn’t think the idea of rotating closures is would work, but agrees that students would consume more food, even a second dinner, if dining halls were open later.

Nevertheless, Chadbourne says that people within University Hall are discussing dining rotations that could be set up within the four “neighborhoods”—configurations of three neighboring houses that the College plans to begin using in blocking assignments this spring.

But Chadbourne says that extending the limited grill offerings is a more viable solution, because the cost of increasing the amount of grill food is smaller than increasing the quantities of everything on the menu and keeping dining halls fully open later.

“What if most of the dining hall closed down except for the grill and they served you the food on disposable dishwear?” Chadbourne says. “So really what you’re paying for just two people to stay in each house.”

Mayer thinks it’s possible that a lot of the demands for late night dining will be assuaged once the Lamont Café and Loker Pub open next year, and Glazer says that offering better brain breaks and food in Loker would help.

But Chadbourne says he doesn’t think that a 20-year problem will be ameliorated by options that require students to pay.

“People will say that’s progress but it doesn’t go far enough,” Chadbourne says.

-Staff writer Joshua P. Rogers can be reached at jprogers@fas.harvard.edu