The Politics of Meal Planning

or, What You Always Wanted to Know About Why You Eat Differently Than Your Friends in Ithaca, But Were Too Busy Belly-Aching to Ask

Unless you're one of those recluses who lives in the netherworld of Central Square, catches the Red Line for your 11 o'clock at Burr B, and eats wheat germ at Hemispheres everyday, you have to deal with it: Harvard food. Whether you're a freshman living in Hurlbut or a senior in Adams, a pre-med or a poet, you still have to eat what the Food Services provides.

For something as integral to Harvard students' lives as the meal system, relatively little is known about it. There are the rumors, of course. (No, the menus aren't really planned by a poltergeist who lives in Widener D level--it's an extremely nice woman in the basement of the Union.) And there are innumerable questions posed over the meatless chile con carne and the meal on a muffin. For example, why do I have to pay the full board fee if I never eat breakfast? Why does Adams have realcoffee, and Eliot doesn't? And perhaps most important, if Dartmouth can offer a variety of meal plan contracts for students to choose, why can't Harvard? Where does the buck, and the beef, stop?

First there's the obvious. Undergraduates on board eat at either the Freshman Union or one of 12 residential Houses. The various dining halls seat anywhere from 350 to 1200 people. Their atmospheres run from the zoo-like chaos of the Union to the almost intimate dining at the Quad Houses. There is also an antiseptic cafeteria for non-residential students at Dudley House. These dining rooms are serviced by five kitchen centrals, with food quality popularly believed to vary from kitchen to kitchen. (Whereas Currier gets nothing but raves, Lowell is a notorious whistle-stop to Elsie's.)

This power of centralization has begun to erode in the past few years, however, with the innovations of C. Graham Hurlbut, former director of Food Services and current director of Administrative Services. Hurlbut's baby is "on site cooking"--that is, cooking done in the House's small supporting kitchens rather than the central facilities. This probably accounts for the differences that now crop up in an otherwise standardized system.

The need for ideas like Hurlbut's does not arise in many other Ivy League schools. Harvard's food system has evolved from and adapted to undergraduate Houses and their individual dining facilities. Many of the other colleges don't have to cope with the House structure, something everyone in the food management business considers a headache. The House system "wasn't set up to feed students efficiently," Benjamin Walcott, assistant director of Food Services, said last week.


Take a more centralized system like that of Brown University. Students on board contracts there eat at one of three main facilities. These large kitchens mass produce food, as does the Union, and are more stream-lined and cost-efficient than House dining rooms. Thus the House system, which Harvard proudly vaunts as a welcome preventative to the impersonality which so often plagues a large university, means more cost and less efficiency, burdens that are passed on to students and harrassed Food Services personnel.

The decentralized system also makes flexible meal plans difficult. If such plans were offered (say, a choice of taking 10, 15, or 20 meals a week), the smaller number of students who would stay on full board would cause some dining rooms to shut down, at least for part of the week, Frank J. Weissbecker, director of Food Services, says. Or, as Norman Cleveland, director of Food Services at Brown, puts it, an optional system like Brown's would kill the House system if put into effect at Harvard.

Food Services is not per se opposed, however, to an optional meal plan system, Weissbecker says. One such system, where students were offered the choice of contracts ranging from 12 to 21 meals a week, enjoyed a trial run in the period following the 1969 spring vacation. Since 72 per cent of the student residents still took the 21-meal-a-week plan, the University decided to axe the experiment. Despite the inevitable student grumbling, therefore, the interest in more flexibility does not seem to translate into action. Still, although Food Services is committed to the House System, Weissbecker says, it was and is willing to move to an optional contract system if the powers that be approved it.

As for now, Food Services charges students for only 14 meals a week, since calculations have it that this is the average number of meals a student eats. So you're not being cheated if you never eat breakfast, but students who eat less than 14 meals a week are subsidizing those who eat more, as Lee E. Bains '77, a former Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) representatives who has investigated various cost saving options for Food Services, points out. The bottom line here is that the yogurt cone lunch at the Spa types end up treating the more regular customers.

Back at the other schools, meanwhile, either because they are centralized or because they are not restricted by the House structure, students can select flexible and diverse meal options. At Cornell, students opt for the commitment to a contract on a purely voluntary basis. Plans range from a three-meals-a-day, seven-days-a-week option to the two-meals-a-day, five-days-a-week fare. Students pay an unrefundable $60 membership fee at the beginning of the year and this entitles them to any meal option. It also allows them to switch from plan to plan as often as once a week. (Those who participate carry an ID with their picture on it, validated for their current board plan.)

Differing options also confront students at Dartmouth. They can contract to eat either 21, 14 or 7 meals during a week. Or they may choose, as many commuters do, to eat either ten or five meals from Monday through Friday. All freshmen at Dartmouth must take either the 21 or 14 meal plan, according to Jerry Gambel, Catering Manager. Sophomores and juniors sign up for a board contract, while only a few seniors go the contract route. Rumor has it the only complaints have been from dining hall checkers, who must deal with hungry jocks who demand more than their ration.

Brown University offers four meal options--20, 14, 10 or 7 meals a week. Like Dartmouth, freshmen must sign up for at least a seven meal per week plan, since, as Evangeline Glass, who is in charge of contracts, puts it, the university believes "they should have one good meal." The decision to provide options for Brown students was an "evolution, not a revolution," Cleveland said last week. In response to students' differing lifestyles, the university at first provided the seniors with the option to move off board. The system became more modified when Brown and Pembroke fused, Cleveland added. But this new diversity requires new ways of keeping the records straight. Unlike at other universities, where students must hassle with coupons or punching tickets, Brown's system is completely computerized. Each student who takes out a board contract has a specially validated ID. At each meal, he or she inserts it into a computer unit. The machine then prints out how many meals the student can eat during a week and how many he or she has already consumed.

At Columbia, the food service has been forced to adapt to a large percentage of commuters. In fact, so few students live in university housing, or remain on campus during weekends, that no meals are serviced in university facilities on Saturday or Sunday. Options run only from Monday to Friday, and all contracts are voluntary. The options do not differ according to the number of meals offered per week; rather, they constitute a "cash equivalency plan." Kay Knipers, General Manager of Food Services, says students receive their nourishment in exchange for tickets, which are good not only in the dining hall but in the university pub. It sounds good, but as elsewhere this special offering depends on unique circumstances, and Harvard is not a commuter school.

In a few nooks and crannies at Harvard, however, you can find meal contract options similar to those at other Ivy League schools. Harkness Commons, a dining facility attached to the Law School, offers four optional contracts for students, ranging from a 15 meal, three-meal-a-day plan at $31 a week to a five lunch, $8 program. The Business School has no meal contract plan, and sells food in restaurant style. The school encourages students to use the Kresge Hall facility by selling books of food coupons at a 15 per cent discount. Charles McCarthy, food king of Kresge Hall, is pleased with the program. But he calls it a financial gamble because of the uncertainty involved when students get locked into a contract.

Then there is the history of food offerings at Harvard. As recently as 1965, each night brought a Big Surprise that was usually a Big Letdown. Only one entree a meal was offered to students. Since then the trend has been toward variety in choice. Changes have included the availability of vegetarian plates at every meal and a diversified salad bar including the new rage, three bean salad. The number of beverages has jumped, and a menu coordinated with religious holidays has taken form. The popular hamburger-alternative at the Quad Houses has also appeared.