Student satisfaction with Harvard’s residential dining halls has reached an all-time high, yet students still hanker for greater menu variety, including more seafood and vegetarian entrees, according to the biannual survey conducted by Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS).
The 3,230 students—almost half the College—who responded to the survey gave HUDS its highest ratings ever in eight categories ranging from visual appeal of food to cleanliness of facilities. Overall satisfaction averaged 3.89 out of 5, and total turnout was the second highest ever.
“The high number of students that expressed their opinions reveals that students are very active participants in the dining hall experience,” said Paul B. Davis ’07, a member of the HUDS Student Advisory Committee, adding that he found the turnout “very encouraging.”
Respondents came in approximately equal numbers from each class year, and freshman participation nearly doubled, from 377 in the spring to 732 this fall.
To encourage students to fill out the 10-minute online questionnaire, HUDS offered a “super duper ice cream brain break” to the House with the greatest survey participation.
“If there’s sugar involved, people do it,” said HUDS Spokeswoman Jami M. Snyder.
Cabot House, with 89 percent participation, bagged the prize for the second straight semester. Last year’s runner-up, Leverett, placed second again with 57 percent, tying Quincy House.
Cabot’s victory this fall came in the wake of a scandal-tainted win last spring, when a group of ingenious, ice cream-craving Cabot residents manipulated the online system to achieve a miraculous 105 percent participation by voting multiple times. Snyder said that even though the students were caught manipulating their cookies (the online kind), an official investigation showed that Cabot still reigned.
On the other end of the spectrum, a paltry 26 percent of Dunster House students filled out the survey, landing their House in last place for the second consecutive term.
Snyder lauded the survey’s higher scores for food temperature, quality, and freshness.
“When we look at how our food is perceived by students, a lot is so arbitrary,” she said. “However when we look at temperature, it’s not only a food safety factor, but a quality factor. As far as the freshness of food and quality of food, we were really happy to see those go up.”
But Snyder also said HUDS was concerned to see lower scores in the categories of staff friendliness and appearance.
“It was surprising to see that go down,” she said. “But it’s important to keep that in context. It’s still close to perfect.”
Scores in those areas averaged between 4.2 and 5.
Snyder said students articulated cravings for specific foods, rather than offering general suggestions.
“The open comments tend to come back more related to products than overall dining,” she said. “It’s almost always a specific food item request.”
The most common requests were for more authentic ethnic cuisine, “homestyle foods,” vegetarian entrees, and seafood.
“We had a lot of people say they’re interested in fish,” said Snyder, adding that HUDS hopes to add more mahi-mahi to the spring menu, which is currently being finalized.
In an effort to respond to similar past comments, HUDS’s current winter seasonal menu includes lobster bisque and mussels, more frequent vegetable samosas, and, starting in January, a biweekly make-your-own Indian naan and curry station.
According to Crista Martin, HUDS assistant director for marketing, “the survey has existed for a long time,” but has only recently been standardized to allow for better year-to-year comparisons.
Martin wrote in an e-mail that “in 2001 we [HUDS] went online with surveystudents.com, and have been using that system ever since—same questions, just rotating open-ended items.”
In addition, students have had a more consistent channel of communication with HUDS since the creation of the HUDS Student Advisory Committee last year, which Snyder said will work with dining services “to develop new recipes, programs and ideas, as well as questions for future surveys.”
Davis said that the committee seeks to convert student enthusiasm gauged on the survey into results.
“That’s something we can translate into policy by speaking with the people who are making decisions,” he said. “I’m glad that students approach the survey with a critical perspective and voice their complaints, because that’s the way things get improved.”
—Staff writer Sam Teller can be reached at email@example.com.