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Why the Mandatory Unlimited Meal Plan is Unfair

Though 98 percent of Harvard students live on campus, few of us pay attention to our mandatory unlimited meal plans. Many students were rightly upset when the student activities fee, an optional fee to fund student life and activities, increased from $75 to $200 last year, yet the exorbitant $6,755 cost of dining that the College imposes on virtually all students is discussed far less frequently. This fee is fundamentally unfair and ought to become optional.

First of all, many students frequently eat meals outside of the dining hall or skip breakfast and thus eat far fewer than 21 meals in the dining halls each week. The fact that students who live on campus are forced to pay for potentially hundreds of unused meal swipes is exploitative. Students deserve the right to spend their money how they wish and, especially with tuition costs increasing rapidly, all nonessential costs ought to be made optional.

Given the option, I believe many students would opt for plans that are far more limited. Currently the cost of the unlimited meal plan is roughly $32 per day. If every student were given $32 each day for food, I highly doubt that most students would spend the entirety of it in Harvard’s dining halls. Ask yourself: if you had $14 for dinner and you could choose between eating in the square and the House, how many nights a week would you eat in the dining halls?

Students who live off campus are allowed to choose between a variable meal plan with 5, 10, or 21 meals, or they can opt out of a dining plan entirely. By providing this option for students who live off campus, Harvard has demonstrated that it has the capacity to allow students to purchase partial meal plans. It also provides an incentive to move off campus for those who find the cost of board to be onerous, and many students I know who have moved off campus have cited dining costs as one of the primary reasons for their move.

There are legitimate reasons why Harvard requires students to have an unlimited meal plan. On its website, HUDS states that it helps create “many life-changing moments and memorable conversations” and to “foster life-long friendship networks and engender the intimate feeling of family and community.” By mandating that all students on campus have unlimited dining options, HUDS ensures that “you are able to eat all meals and participate in dining hall activities with your peers in every House.” Yet, Harvard could still require that all students have at least some meal swipes without requiring an unlimited amount. And Harvard could easily make all dining halls accessible to students who do not swipe in, as several Houses already do. Regardless, the argument that requiring students to pay such a high cost for meals that they do not fully use is necessary in order to build strong communities does not outweigh the exploitative and burdensome nature of the $6,755 fee.

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Moreover, Harvard’s dining halls stack up very poorly against other schools. According to Niche’s ranking of best college food — which takes into account cost, quality, health, and variety of food — Harvard is 317th in the nation and seventh among Ivy League schools. For a school that seeks excellence in all fields, this is embarrassingly low. Allowing students to opt out of unlimited dining would provide a method of holding HUDS accountable and incentivizing it to improve the quality of the food, increase options for vegans or students who observe religious dietary restrictions, and remain open for longer.

It is important for Harvard to foster a sense of community on campus and within the Houses. The dining halls certainly play a key role in this effort, however, granting students the option to choose a variable dining plan rather than an unlimited one would not seriously hurt the sense of community. Abandoning the requirement for all on-campus students to have unlimited meal plans would go a long way in lightening the financial burden that many students carry and in increasing the ability of students to control their diets.

Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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