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Capitalism for Dinner

By Nikhil G. Mathews

Something has to change if Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) is to meet the demands of the students whom it serves. The Committee on House Life (CHL) acknowledged as much when it met to discuss the future of HUDS earlier this month.

HUDS Executive Director Ted A. Mayer and company have finally taken notice of students’ cries for longer dining hours, but the committee remains uncertain about how to respond. What the CHL doesn’t seem to recognize is that the dining hours problem is merely one symptom of a thoroughly inefficient and inflexible system.

Massive wasting of food, inequitable distribution of dining costs, and inconvenient dining hours are all evidence of HUDS’ failure to respond to the needs of students. Each of these problems can be remedied if we move away from the all-inclusive meal plan and to a market-based system that allows students to use meal credits to buy only as much HUDS food as they want.

Let’s begin with the issue of food waste. HUDS’ food waste audits have revealed that the average student leaves approximately 100 pounds of uneaten food on his tray over the course of a school year. Multiplying the recent audit figures by the number of undergraduates, we find that students are wasting a prodigious 400,000-700,000 pounds of food each year. The Resource Efficiency Program valiantly attempts to convince students to minimize their food waste, but in the end, students have little motivation to comply. Why shouldn’t we pile up three heaping plates of food, even if we don’t intend to eat most of it? After all, it might avoid the trouble of going back for seconds.

The way to bring diners’ waste habits into line with resource efficiency is to make sure that we pay in proportion to our use. That means implementing a system in which students swipe their cards as they check out of the servery and a quantity of “meal credits” is deducted from their dining accounts depending on what they choose, much like the use of BoardPlus at the Greenhouse Café. Students should be able to add as much funding to their plans as they want (and perhaps HUDS could set a modest annual minimum).

This system would also end the inequitable distribution of dining costs. Under the current system, the most popular dinner foods often vanish by 6:30 p.m., leaving late eaters at an unfair disadvantage. Under a “privatized” HUDS system, students who want to hoard three dozen cookies will be forced to pay for their consumption. More likely, they will choose not to consume so many. Thus, those who truly value cookies will be able to get them, while those who simply want to abuse their access to the common food resources will be dissuaded.

Perhaps most importantly, HUDS will have to be responsive to student needs to earn their business. This means that they will have to operate at the hours that are convenient to students. A 2005 Undergraduate Council survey found that 87 percent of students would prefer to eat dinner after 7:15 p.m. (the current closing time of River Houses) at least five days a week. If HUDS had to compete for student business, it would almost certainly stay open till 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. to draw late-dining residents. Similarly, a HUDS responsive to student tastes would be more likely to offer meals that students enjoy and less likely to re-serve last week’s unused meatloaf.

HUDS’ refusal to move to a system with more student choice is typically justified by a concern for “House atmosphere.” If students aren’t forced to contract for 21 meals per week, they will choose to eat away from their Houses much more often. And if fewer people take their meals in the dining hall, House life and communal spirit will be critically damaged. Or so the argument goes.

Although students probably would spend more time exploring alternative dining options under a more flexible system, this wouldn’t mark the collapse of the House system. The convenience and proximity of the House dining halls ensures that many students would continue to take meals in their Houses, provided that the food is of reasonable quality. Furthermore, the House system is rooted on much more than a dining plan. Dining halls serve as the social centers not only because they are places to eat, but also because they are havens for students to study, hold meetings, or just chat. House happy hours, parties, and academic events are equally important parts of House life.

Even under the current system, many students choose to eat a majority of their meals away from the dining hall. Dinner might be the only meal that really is a considerable social gathering. And even then, most students choose to sit with blockmates or friends rather than participate in a free-flowing communion of House unity. Thus, allowing students more freedom would hardly destroy the dynamics of House social life.

Another objection to reform might be that a decline in the volume of meals served would drive up per-meal prices by eliminating HUDS’ economies of scale. But this argument casually assumes that HUDS’ current production level produces economies of scale benefits. Further, it claims that allowing students to make choices would lead to a drop in sales that would significantly cut into those benefits. Even if these premises are correct, HUDS can adjust by consolidating some dining halls to reduce costs or allowing other more competitive vendors to lease dining hall space.

The bottom line is that a market-based dining system would allow students to choose for themselves what they value in their dining conditions. Students alone can properly balance the various factors of price, convenience, food quality, and the value of eating with other members of the House community when they make dining decisions. Only a market system would free them to make that choice.

Nikhil G. Mathews ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Mather House.

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