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To see that Harvard is loath to take advice from other educational establishments one needs only recall its stubborn refusal to move winter finals from January to December. And, after Tufts Dean Charles Inouye last year derided Harvard students as “essentially a lazy bunch,” the prospect that University Hall would take advice from its Medford neighbors seems especially slim. Yet, College officials would do well to look for culinary—if not academic—inspiration just two stops up the Red Line: for Tufts has devised a meal plan that makes Harvard’s look positively second-rate.
As every undergraduate knows, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) currently offers just one meal plan for undergraduates. All students who choose to live in on-campus housing—and local property prices make that a necessity for almost all of us—are required to purchase the full-board plan. For their $4,041 per year, all students are allowed up to 21 meals per week in addition to daily snacks. As the HUDS website vaguely explains it, “Harvard has a single, unlimited meal plan as part of an overall strategy to ensure that you can participate in every House activity on an equal footing as your peers.”
At first glance, the policy seems, at least to some degree, sensible; the idea that some students would deprive themselves of food in order to ease the financial burdens of attending Harvard is disturbing for idealists and lawsuit-wary administrators alike. And, indeed, every undergraduate who lives on campus currently has access to the same range and limitless quantities of dining hall food, regardless of their financial situations. Yet, trouble simmers beneath the surface.
For the current full-board plan is predicated on the assumption that all the food desired by a normal undergraduate can be provided by House dining halls. Of course, on a strictly literal basis, it can. But eating should be enjoyable as well as nutritional, should tickle the tastebuds as well as fill the stomach. This is where HUDS’s paternalistic philosophy fails in practicality. For there is no escaping that, however well-executed the particular dishes, institutional food remains just that. And there exists in all students, regardless of their economic circumstances, a desire to escape occasionally—or maybe not so occasionally—from the mass-produced fare offered in the dining halls.
Which brings us to Davis Square. Metaphorically, that is. Tufts offers a flexible meal plan, where sophomores, juniors and seniors can choose whether they want to sign up for unlimited, 220, 160, 100 or 80 meals per semester in the dining hall. First-years are required to have full-board to ease the adjustment to college. In other words, Tufts upperclassmen have the choice of how many meals they want to eat out per week. At Harvard, that choice also applies to some upperclassmen, but, alas, of a quite different kind.
The Harvard system that seeks to be egalitarian, in fact, has precisely the opposite effect. By forcing all students to pay for the mandatory full-board plan, only those who are wealthier can afford to double pay by going out for meals after already, um, forking out for the mandatory meal plan. A flexible meal plan along the Tufts lines would allow all students increased options and help to redress the economic inequities built into the current system.
However, even if HUDS is unwilling to embrace the Tufts flexible meal plan, there are other valuable lessons to be learned in Davis Square. Tufts currently has a program called Merchant on Points (MOPS) which is a superior version of Harvard’s Board Plus. MOPS allows students to use their dining dollars—which come in varying amounts depending on which meal plan is purchased—to get delivery from four local restaurants. After 7 p.m. during the week and 1 p.m. on weekends, Tufts students can use their ID cards to order take out Chinese, Middle Eastern, Barbecue or Italian, all of which will be delivered to their dorm rooms.
The cornerstone of the Tufts meal plan is the pragmatic realization that, while residential dining has a valuable contribution to make to college life and should not be abandoned altogether, students will inevitably tire of dining hall food and will look elsewhere for a change of pace. If HUDS administrators truly care about undergraduates’ eating preferences, they will recognize this. Crimson Cash is primed to be accepted next year for pizza at Tommy’s and Pinnochio’s—Board Plus should follow closely behind.
As things stand, HUDS has much to learn from the Tufts’ system that encourages choice and allows all students, regardless of income bracket, to enjoy a variety of food. In contrast to its near-neighbors, Harvard has a rigidly inflexible meal plan that unfairly penalizes poorer students—and that ultimately benefits no one.
When asked about Harvard’s offerings, Patti Klos, the Tufts Director of Dining and Business Services, said in a telephone interview, “In this day and age, to require a compulsory meal plan is a hard sell.” For many Harvard students it is an even harder purchase.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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