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The Fallout of Free Food

How catering to these expectations may fall flat

Free Food Tonight

Food is a central part of any person’s life, but it seems to maintain a special kind of importance for college students. Harvard students are always searching for new coffee shops to study at or coupons for popular places around campus.

This obsession with food becomes especially prominent in campus activities. It seems that every single piece of promotional material hung around campus has some mention of food: “Meeting on Thursday, with free food from Jefe’s!” or “Come and stay for a catered dinner!” It seems like every day that there are offers of Insomnia cookies or Felipe’s burritos that flood my inbox, as clubs try to entice members into attending their events.

When I first came to Harvard, all of this excited me. Throughout high school, I always kept on the eye out for opportunities for free or discounted food, whether it be Free Cone Day at Ben and Jerry’s or an email list that would save me a few dollars on my bill. During my first semester, when I was already exploring a ton of extracurriculars, departments, and concentrations, I vowed to attend as many of these kinds of events as possible. The free food gave me some variety from the dining hall, where I ate most of my meals, and it was a nice perk to have at an event I was already planning on attending.

When I went to these events, though, I got the sense that others were only interested in the food, as some people showed up when refreshments were served and left halfway through the presentations.

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After a few weeks, the free food started to become less appealing. As classes ramped up, I didn’t have time to go to guest lectures or meetings. And, even if I could, I began to see a greater cost in spending a few hours at an event that I didn’t have much interest in — a cost that outweighed the benefits of a free snack or meal. I also noticed the overuse of food as a means of attracting interest. Flyby’s Free Food Watch, a section of their daily email with details of events with free food that day, is a testament to how extreme this can be. Each and every day, more and more events started to appear. But I no longer wanted to keep up.

Over time, I started to feel a lack of engagement with these organizations. If all they felt they had to offer was free food to everyone who showed up, going to their meetings didn’t feel special anymore; I didn’t get the sense that they cared about who I was or why I was interested.

Personally, I don’t believe that the issue is that food is present at meetings. I always enjoy when a club I’m a part of decides to offer refreshments every once in a while. Food also provides a fantastic opportunity to build community.

However, overemphasizing food as an incentive to join an organization makes me uneasy, since it seems to reduce the importance of the activities that the club is promoting. Having food be the main punchline of an email or a flyer makes it seem like the only important reason to join the organization is getting these free perks. I understand that every organization is concerned about gaining members, and providing snacks might attract more people. But people who only come for the snacks may not respect the important learning, actions, or leadership that the club wishes to promote. These won’t be the people that stay engaged and apply for higher positions; instead, they’ll come to meetings where they can execute a similar strategy of dining and dashing.

Free food may increase the crowd, but it won’t improve the quality or attachment of the organization’s members. At least to me, the second goal seems a lot more important. If an organization is well run and serves to address a specific issue or idea, people who are interested in it will join anyway. Only through attracting individuals who sincerely care about what they do will organizations here be able to create a dependable base of passionate and dedicated students, ensuring their future success.

Jonathan Yuan ’22 lives in Thayer Hall. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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