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WHAT do venerable vegetables and East European communism have in common?
Both are threatened by popular revolt.
For centuries, Harvard's food has been the deserving butt of campus humor and ill will. In 1638, the first headmaster of the College was fired after serving the students poor quality food. Sad to say, conditions have not improved considerably since. Hard to swallow, difficult to digest and often painful to look at, the daily offerings of Harvard Dining Services are in need of radical overhaul. Several improvements over the past few years have upgraded the quality of Harvard's menu. But among college dining services, Harvard Dining Services is still a lemon.
Fortunately, the movement for reform has gained momentum over the last few weeks. Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III was confronted by dyspeptic students at a panel discussion on undergraduate life during Junior Parents Weekend. In a recent meeting with President Derek C. Bok, the Undergraduate Council raised the issue of changes in the meal plan. Several Council members then met with dining hall representatives to discuss student complaints.
Now Epps is considering reinstating the House Food Committee, an undergraduate group that would meet regularly with dining hall representatives. This committee should be established to voice legitimate student criticism and distinguish viable reforms from the hazy litany of everyday student gripes.
The council members' interest in a variable meal plan is based on various models at other colleges. One option, practiced by Dartmouth, MIT and Columbia, is the "point system," in which students have a fixed number of credits which are deducted either per item or per meal. Other schools--Boston University is one--employ a combination plan, in which students are guaranteed a certain number of meals per week and pay for the rest with an allotment of meal points.
Under the variable system, students don't pay for meals they don't eat, so the nibblers don't subsidize the gourmands. The diversity of choices is also greater. For example, at MIT points may be "spent" at the dining halls, a food mall, a full-service resturant and for pizza delivery.
While some worry that an all-cash plan would encourage well-to-do students to eschew house dining halls, many of the college's wealthier students are already spending more time at Elsie's and Pinnochio's than in dining halls.
A combination plan--with eight to 12 dining hall meals and a fixed amount of points to be used at Harvard-affiliated grills or stores--would give students more choice, while preserving some incentive for better-off students to participate fully in house life.
ALSO on the agenda of a student food committee should be health concerns. Like all Americans, students are increasingly conscious of their diets, consuming less red meat and other high-cholesterol foods and more fresh fruits, vegetables and high-carbohydrate items.
To begin addressing student health concerns, the Dining Services should let us in on their secret recipes. Taking a cue from the Food and Drug Administration, which recently revamped their food labeling guidelines, the Dining Services should institute a comprehensive labeling system of ingredients and method of preparation for entrees and side dishes. No longer would students have to guess whether the fish is fried in butter, vegetable oil or pure grease. No longer would Dining Services patrons be in the dark about exactly what does (and doesn't) go into their ratatouille.
Specifically, the Dining Services should end its practice of adding salt to entrees and side dishes, such as potatoes and soup. Once it's in, you can't take it out; leave it out, though, and you can always add more. And fruit juice--rather than iced tea or fruit punch--should be available at every meal instead of only sporadically.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of student health concerns. But not all students are concerned about their diets. The as-yet unformed House Foods Committee should also address the need for an all-day dining hall. If this is not practical, the hours of dining halls could be staggered so that students would be able to find food somewhere at all times. The Committee should also address the tendency of house dining halls to run out of entrees at 6:45, 30 minutes short of closing. Students should also be given several free guest passes under the system, so that friends don't automatically have to pay for dining hall food.
With a budget of nearly $18 million, it is difficult to imagine an inadequacy or shortfall that the Dining Services would be unable to rectify without increasing board rates. Despite these none-too-confining financial boundaries, the Dining Services has a history of ignoring student complaints and resisting change. According to Dale M. Hennessey, assistant director of Harvard Dining Services, the the Dining Services' mission is "to provide high-quality food and courteous service in a pleasant atmosphere to the end that all we serve obtain maximum satisfaction from our service."
Once formed, the House Foods Committee will have to chance to hold the Dining Services to its word.
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