Waking up for that difficult Monday class after a long weekend, students feel the failures of Harvard University Dining Services more than ever. If they make it to Annenberg for hot breakfast, students might find that the Hawaiian pizza from the other day has been made over (with an egg on top) as “Breakfast Hawaiian Pizza.” At lunch, it would be understandable if they bypassed the overwhelmingly beige and carb-heavy chicken fingers and fries and instead went to make a sandwich. With luck, there might be mustard available. Students looking for dinner after 7:30 p.m., though, should look elsewhere. And anyone entertaining a hope for food that has not already been served multiple times this semester should go to a restaurant.
These criticisms are not new. HUDS is capable of turning out top-notch food, as they do at the harvest dinner in the fall, formal dinners, and events like the upcoming Brazilian Brunch, but they are incapable of producing high-quality food consistently. In order to overcome these deficiencies and improve the student dining experience, Harvard should shutter HUDS and outsource dining operations to an experienced contractor.
The importance of food quality for students transcends mere nutrition. Dining is a key component of student life. The 2009 Report on Harvard House Renewal concluded that “dining halls are critical to House life” and contained vague recommendations to explore the return of hot breakfast and increased access to after-hours dining options. The USA Today education blog has also noted a speculative link between student happiness and perceived food quality. Schools that rank more highly on Newsweek’s food rankings also tend to appear higher on the student happiness rankings.
In fairness to HUDS, Harvard food is a far cry from revolting. The spring 2012 dining satisfaction survey revealed overall satisfaction with residential dining was 3.87 out of 5, and College Prowler surveys of current students awarded Harvard campus dining an “A.” Moreover, the meal experience can improve once students begin eating in their Houses instead of Annenberg.
HUDS also has to contend with challenges that other schools do not. The tradition of Harvard Houses requires that HUDS operate twelve dining halls plus Annenberg and Dudley House. Across the river, Boston University Dining operates three residential dining halls for an undergraduate population that is 2.5 times larger than Harvard’s. Funneling students to a few large dining halls helps reduce overhead costs so more money can be spent on actual food preparation, but that is simply not an option given Harvard traditions.
Yet the fact remains that Harvard dining should be better. There should be hot breakfast, late night dining options beyond the hit-or-miss brain break fare, and more choice in general. The menu should be varied enough that items rarely appear more than once in a season.
Other schools have managed to meet those challenges by outsourcing to third-party contractors. At Washington University in St. Louis, Wheaton College, and St. Olaf College, dining is provided by Bon Appétit, a dining management company that focuses on sustainability. Princeton Review ranked those three schools in the top 20 for campus food. Other schools use Flik or Chartwells. (All three of these companies are owned by the Compass Group.) They also have options for late-night dining and even serve hot breakfast.
These schools have managed to serve better food while keeping costs low. Board at Harvard is $5,264 this year, compared to $5,318 for the top-of-the-line meal plan at Washington University. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which uses Bon Appétit, the most expensive plan is $4,635.
The dining issue is not an intractable problem. Yale Dining, which is an in-house operation like HUDS, manages as many dining halls as Harvard, but their top meal plan costs $5,992 per year. Harvard can either choose to make its students spend more money, on par with Yale and use the additional to improve food service, or even better, it can look to schools that have chosen to outsource their food service.
The greatest barrier to outsourcing would be concerns over losing control of staffing and management choices, but Harvard could carefully negotiate its contract to avoid the kinds of pitfalls that Yale experienced when their dining halls were managed by Aramark. The contract could include incentives for increasing satisfaction with dining to prevent the kind of cost-cutting measures that seem to decrease the quality of food that HUDS serves now. Harvard might also run into opposition from dining hall staff, but Harvard could negotiate re-hiring for all or most of them by the new contractor. The staff is not the source of the poor food quality, after all.
More broadly, Harvard has fallen behind other schools in the facilities it offers. In a race to attract students, many universities have spent money on amenities. Harvard has never needed to improve its food or renovate its housing to attract students, but that does not mean it should abandon student quality of life. At a time when some question the wisdom of attending college, when students can simply watch lectures on a computer screen, the value proposition of a school like Harvard is the outstanding student experience. Harvard should not forget that.
Chris B. Farley ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Grays Hall.