Confused, DSL hits pause on dining menu change

Implementation was not what DSL expected

The new and apparently unpopular pilot dining program rolled out throughout dining hall dorms last week will be put on pause, Suzy Nelson, Vice President of Student Life, wrote in a communique to The Tech late last night.

She said that the way the changes were implemented was inconsistent with her “vision for MIT Dining.”

Students living in dining hall dorms were surprised and generally outraged when, upon returning to campus this semester, they found that every dining hall was serving nearly identical menus.

They were in good company: the leadership of the Division of Student Life appeared to be similarly confused when The Tech relayed news of the much-protested standardization of dining food to them yesterday.

Peter Cummings, executive director for administration at DSL, confirmed that the DSL was indeed responsible for a pilot program that called for each dining chef’s favorite recipes to be shared across dining halls. The idea of the pilot program, Cummings said, was to “improve dining along a set of dimensions” including “flexibility, variety, and quality.”

These goals were outlined in an email sent out yesterday to all meal plan holders.

At the end of last semester, he and Naomi Carton, the associate dean of residential life and dining, met with Bon Appetit. They shared students’ concerns over the lack of consistency in food quality across dining halls, especially the oft-derided Maseeh dining.

DSL’s goal, Cummings asserted, was to combat the “menu fatigue” they perceived among students.

“It was never an intention,” he emphasized, to standardize dining or to “take away options,” such as halal in McCormick and vegetarian in Simmons, and dorm uniqueness, such as McCormick’s soul food nights. What they wanted, Cummings said, was to change the apparent superiority of some dorms over others.

When asked about information disseminated to the student community in two emails from Greta Farrell ’18, Next House Dining Chair, Cummings reiterated that the pilot program was initiated by MIT, and was not a decision from “Bon Appetit corporate headquarters,” as Farrell’s first email claimed.

Upon learning of the standardization of dining food, Cummings said that he would “definitely look into this” and contact Bon Appetit about the issue.

“I’m sorry this… was implemented in a way that was not what we envisioned.”

To a surprised Matthew Bauer, DSL’s head of communications, The Tech confirmed that if, for example, Maseeh was serving chicken parmesan, then every other dorm was also invariably serving chicken parm.

At the time of this article’s writing, Bon Appetit had not responded to Bauer’s requests for comment, sent soon after the interview.

It is clear that a severe miscommunication occurred between MIT and Bon Appetit. It is unclear, however, how this miscommunication was carried all the way to policy change before those responsible were apprised of the situation. Cummings admitted that no MIT personnel had taken part in any internal Bon Appetit meetings, during which decisions on program implementation would have been made.

Cummings said that he and Carton worked with the management team from Bon Appetit over the summer to address these concerns, as part of a tradition of constant communication between Bon Appetit and MIT. Cummings said that Bon Appetit and Carton sometimes hold daily conversations on the student dining experience.

Leading up to this initiative, the DSL had led an effort in conjunction with Dormitory Council dining chairs Kate Farris ’17 and Mary K. Delaney ’16 to gather data on student feedback to support changes which Cummings said “[they] knew they would have to make.” A focus group which involved students has recently submitted its findings for publication, but Cummings “didn’t want to wait another year to make changes.”

Students have widely expressed disapproval of the new program on dining hall comment boards, in feedback to Bon Appetit, and in a petition launched by McCormick’s dining chair yesterday. Chefs also expressed their discontent over the limitations on their creativity.

The Tech asked Cummings and Bauer if they were entirely unaware of student feedback to the pilot program in its current, mistaken form. They recalled receiving summaries of student dining comment cards and emails sent to, several of which were “headscratchers” due to their references to dining food standardization.

Cummings said that it wasn’t until Heads of House contacted Nelson, followed by The Tech’s emailing Carton about the protests and speculations concerning the new dining policy, that they began to say “oh, something’s taken a left turn here,” and it was not until the time of the interview that they realized the extent of homogeneity in dining food. Cummings confirmed that Nelson was not at the time aware of the program, which began to take shape during her predecessor’s tenure.

Cummings’s email yesterday to the dining community marked the first formal announcement by MIT administration about the new program, despite it having taken effect more than a week earlier.

Cummings accepted blame for allowing rumors and misconceptions to proliferate. “I’m going to take that on my shoulders as someone who should’ve anticipated that this had a cumulative effect of rippling out across the system,” he said. He and his office, Cummings said, at no point anticipated “a change so noticeable that it demanded [an announcement].”

“My lesson learned here,” he continued, “is that we need to recognize that when we’re asking partners to potentially alter [their service], that is something we need to present to the community.”

During a phone conversation a few hours after the interview, Cummings said that his team “did go to see the menus” and they “can see where the students would be concerned with certain menu items being the same across dorms.”

From chef feedback, Cummings gathered that Bon Appetit has not “had time to sit with all their staff.”

A dining chef told The Tech yesterday that all the chefs had been instructed last week to serve the same main courses for any given meal. He added that two days previously, an order was communicated to the staff that the grill component of each night’s dinner would resume being chef’s choice, but that the other two components would remain the same across dining halls. The chef was under the impression that the order came through Cummings and the Office of Campus Dining.

When approached about this, Cummings replied that he “wouldn’t say that the order that those two dishes should be standardized came from campus dining.”

Cummings and Bauer expressed their eagerness for clarity and their desire to avoid putting out the wrong information.

Nelson wrote in an email to The Tech that “we will work with students to identify other ways to bring more variety, quality, and value to MIT diners in the short and long term.”

“Students should also know that they can come to my office hours and talk to me directly about dining or any other issue,” she said. She would like “as many students as possible to drop in.” Students can also “share their thoughts about next steps by emailing or reaching out to their house dining chair, who will in turn share those thoughts with the House Dining Committee.” Bauer said that the pause will go into effect “as soon as possible.”