The Long Hard Job Of Feeding Harvard Students: The History of Harvard Dining Services

The first of a three-part series

In 1896 the men of Harvard College banded together in protest. Their complaint was not the academic program, University facilities or the state of world affairs, but Irish Stew.

"The stew is disagreeable in taste, and to many men who simply cannot eat it, is an item of expense, since it requires the ordering of extras," wrote the undergraduates in a letter to the editors of The Crimson.

"We appreciate the wish of the Directors to give as great a variety of food as possible, but dislike this particular variety. Finally, we believe that food which is, as the first petition showed, objectionable to nearly two hundred men, should be no longer served in Memorial Hall," the men wrote.

A century later, in the interminable search for a palatable meal in the dining halls, College students empathize with these Harvard students of yesteryear.

But terms like "extras", "Directors" and "petition" have disappeared from dining hall parlance.


Even if food quality has remained much the same over the past century (some students may argue that it is literally the same food), the administration of Harvard's Dining Services has evolved from a student-run entrepreneurial system to the University-wide organization that it is today.

Originally known as the Harvard Dining Association (HDA), the organization that controlled meals at Memorial and Randall Halls at the turn of the century was a board of directors composed of six elected undergraduate representatives and three appointed by the Harvard Corporation. It was to this body that the Irish Stew protest was aimed.

Randall Hall stood in the current location of William James Hall. Students and faculty members could purchase membership in the HDA for five dollars per year. Membership entitled students to vote for the Directors. Elections were prestigious and competitive contests.

All University students and affiliates could purchase individual meals or weekly coupon booklets to eat at the dining facilities. There was no semester-long meal plan.

To keep student costs down, HDA offered the "American Plan" as the basic meal option. The plan served students cereals, bread, cake, soups and a selection of vegetables.

In 1911, students could purchase a weekly meal plan for $5.25. Breakfast, lunch and dinner could be purchased individually for 30, 35 and 50 cents respectively.

At any meal, students could also purchase "extras", including meats, fish, eggs, salads, fruit, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, milk, lemonade and desserts. According to the letter to The Crimson, extras were popular on days when Irish Stew was served as part of the American Plan.

The HDA maintained services responsive to student needs. For example, those who purchased meal coupons by the week could receive reimbursements if they left campus for the weekend.

"The plan partakes of the nature of a co-operative society run for the benefit of its members," according to an HDA brochure from 1907.

At the beginning of each semester, students registered for club tables where they would eat for the year. The designated head of each table acted as a liaison between members of the table and the management.

Recommended Articles