America’s oldest collegiate foodservice has just scored some major bling—but its patrons have yet to show much of an appetite. For the most part, Harvard University Dining Services’ (HUDS) new flat-panel plasma screens and electronic kiosks (for installation in each dining hall) haven’t even sparked brain-break levels of interest. Still, at a campus in which anything and everything inspires debate—from abstinence to alcohol subsidies and single-ply toilet paper—HUDS’ latest effort has not escaped criticism. The new technology deserves few brownie points, but students ought not overlook their good fortune in having a dining service that actually cares—and outclasses any other college caterer.
The technology’s extravagance alone calls HUDS’ judgment into question—its estimated $40,000 price tag (HUDS declined to provide any specific figures) hardly justifies the slim margin of convenience it may provide. Dish labels already include the most salient food information, from serving size and caloric content to saturated fat, total fat, protein, carbohydrate, and fiber content. Additional details are accessible on the HUDS website, a sleek, polished production designed to “defin[e] the HUDS brand voice literally and visually” and meet the needs of students “who also happen to be Millenials.”
HUDS suggests the new screens will improve sustainability by reducing paper and ink use, but that calculation neglects the energy costs involved in running (and manufacturing) the screens and kiosks—and fails to explain why menu cards, table tents, and other paper labels are still in use.
Even so, student outcry over the purchase is a little misplaced. Claims that funds ought to have gone towards expanded dining hours instead of spiffy new hardware grossly underestimate the difference between the two expenditures. Between serving 25,000 daily meals; managing a 650-member staff; and running 13 dining halls, campus restaurants, Crimson Cash, catering, sustainability programs, and public service partnerships, HUDS entails a considerably more nuanced approach to decision-making and budgeting than, say, tallying up three-buck chuck against a UC check (or lack thereof, these days).
Perhaps the occasional frivolous purchase is the price we have to pay for the most responsive and accommodating of all campus institutions. Execution can miss the mark: brain-break offerings don’t put a dent in late-night hunger, and the “ethnic”-ness of endless grilled-chicken riffs is debatable. But HUDS’ efforts to invite—and respond to—student feedback are remarkable: take cage-free eggs and fair trade bananas, for example—and the mere fact that brain break exists. They even wash and replace our mugs in most dining halls on a daily basis.
Those who lambaste HUDS’ recent extravagance ought not forget the myriad other food luxuries we get that would be extraordinary to every other college student: special themed dinners, yogurt parfait and Asian noodle “action stations,” local and organic products, bagged meals, personal grill orders, and whole racks of herbs and spices—all provided at no additional cost to the Harvard undergraduate.
“Our reason for being here,” says HUDS Director of Communications and Marketing Crista Martin, is “to provide for the dining hall experience, which is after all a big part of the overall Harvard experience.” The exorbitance of installing 42-inch plasma screens and freestanding kiosks in campus dining halls is perplexing, even if it is well-intentioned. But students should cut HUDS some slack—at least they treat us like the respectable “citizen-scholars” that we are.
Julia Y. Lam ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social anthropology concentrator in Dunster House.