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Firstly, let me preface this by saying that I rarely eat fast food. I’d much rather enjoy one of my father’s home-cooked meals, perfectly baked or fried with generational recipes too sophisticated for my cooking skills.
But, honestly, I really wish there was a McDonald’s in Harvard Square.
I know, I know, before you crucify me — I’m being selfish. Harvard Square businesses are beloved essentials of campus life that have already suffered enough financial losses due to Covid-19. Introducing a multinational food chain like McDonald’s to the Square would siphon the patronage from surrounding small businesses until they wither away. I’m no economist, but I get it.
Listen: Like any Harvard student, I too tiptoe into the Square at late hours, gliding down Massachusetts Avenue and its intersecting roads to order from the restaurants that brighten our campus in the nighttime. However, in my short time here at Harvard, I’ve quickly learned that Harvard Square is not well suited for frequent, casual spending. At least, not for me.
I care about small businesses — I do. I don’t want to see them disappear. But let’s not pretend that the restaurants that adorn Harvard Square do not thrive off of Harvard’s tourism. As a world-class institution that has long cemented itself a household name, Harvard attracts everyone. And what attracts people attracts money. In normal times, over eight million tourists visit Harvard Square a year, making the area that spans only a quarter-mile the third most profitable retail market in the state of Massachusetts. Credit cards and dollar bills practically leap from wallets — and Harvard Square restaurants love this. They feed off of it.
But, the Square’s businesses don’t only thrive off passing tourists — they thrive off us, the students. They feast greedily into the stereotype of the “typical” affluent Harvard kid: the one with deep pockets and an insatiable stomach.
Although the Square and the University are legally separate, they are functionally one whole. Harvard Square would not exist without Harvard. So while the administration may advertise that 20 percent of undergraduate students pay nothing to attend the best university in the world, I know this to be untrue. Harvard is free for no one. Harvard’s exorbitant culture of dining at local restaurants multiple times a week — a day even — is an additional expense that taxes low-income students the hardest.
And, to an extent, Harvard recognizes this struggle. In 2016, Harvard expanded its financial aid program to provide freshmen with a $2,000 start-up grant to help pay for move-in expenses and jumpstart their college careers. But, after paying for transportation, textbooks, dorm supplies, and navigating a city where the cost of living is 73 percent higher than the national average, it dwindles.
So, if one can’t afford a $15 meal four times a week, what do you do? Decline the dinner invitations, say “I’m not hungry” or “I have to study tonight.” Splitting a $200 bill between five people in the evening means mentally balancing your checkbook the next morning in regret, and you can’t afford that. You save money, but miss out on everything else.
The shame that comes from spending money I don’t have, or eating in the dining hall alone at night, serves to remind me that just because we attend the same university, study the same subjects, and walk along the same roads, the Harvard poster child and I are not equal.
I would say this isn’t just about food — that the average price of a meal in the Square is a smaller inconvenience indicative of the larger pressures of being low-income at the most heavily-endowed university in the country. But, honestly, this is about food. Food is everything. Food is how Harvard students bond. Food is my best hope towards integrating a deeply stratified social sphere.
When I get too comfortable at Harvard, when I think that maybe I can blend in, the $11 organic kale salads snatch me back to reality. Warn me that Harvard is not my home.
Because Harvard Square is nothing like my neighborhood. There are no rival pressed juiceries and boba spots. There are no double-decker Starbucks, or places that sell frozen fruit smoothies in a bowl. Where I’m from, there are Polish sausage joints and gas stations that specialize in chips and Gatorade. Where I’m from, there are rival Burger Kings and White Castles. There are Taco Bells and Wendy’s, too, if you’re feeling fancy.
And there is McDonald’s, which is always busy, and always cheap.
So when I’m on campus, desperately running out of money, I yearn for my familiar fast-food restaurants. I yearn for reminders of home, reminders that yes, I do in fact belong here. Is that so wrong of me?
Jasmine Green ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.
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