Roll-over meals and ‘dining dollars’ under consideration for meal plan revisions

Dining survey reveals preferences of meal plan holders

The Division of Student Life (DSL), in coordination with student representatives on the Dormitory Council (DormCon), is currently engaged in a Food & Dining Review process.  Some changes being considered include roll-over meals and “dining dollars” to spend at retail locations.

The first visible, major outcome students can expect to see are revisions to the existing meal plan structure, with specifics to be announced this winter or spring.

One “very likely” change is the introduction of a meals per semester system in addition to the current meals per week system, Joseph P. Murphy ’19, a DormCon dining co-chair, said in an interview with The Tech Tuesday. Under this alternative, meals would rollover instead of expiring at the end of each week, allowing students more flexibility in chossing when to use their swipes.

The new options currently being considered range from 100 to 200 meals per semester, Murphy said. For context, a Full 19 plan translates to approximately 299 meals per semester, and an Any 14 plan translates to approximately 220 meals per semester.

Another proposed change, which Murphy said is still “up in the air,” would eliminate the distinctions between the Any (swipes can be used for any meal) and Basic (swipes can only be used for breakfast and dinner) tiers in favor of Any plans only.

The two tiers were concluded to be comparable in terms of cost, Murphy explained. “If it could be done without incurring a large cost increase, it is likely that Basic plans would be eliminated to give everyone the full flexibility offered by the Any plans and simplify the plan options in light of other options becoming available.”

These potential shifts are in line with the results of a voluntary, campus-wide survey on students’ dining habits and preferences conducted last March by DSL with the help of Envision Strategies, a consulting firm.

Approximately 29 percent of undergraduate respondents living in dining hall dorms skip lunch, according to presentation slides of key survey findings published on the DSL website. This result is “not surprising,” the slides indicated, given that approximately 50 percent of meal plan holders are on a meal plan that does not include lunch.

In comparison, approximately 13 percent of undergraduate respondents living in a cook-for-yourself community and 2 percent of graduate respondents skip lunch.

One idea mentioned in the survey is a “Grab & Go Station,” where students could use a meal swipe to take 4 or 5 items on the go; approximately 59 percent of meal plan holders positively indicated that they would like to have such an option on main campus (east of Massachusetts Avenue) for lunch.

Another idea is “Dining Dollars,” which could be added as an additional component in meal plans, separate from swipes, and allow students to buy items à la carte from retail locations on campus; approximately 58 percent of meal plan holders expressed interest.

Each of these options present logistical challenges, Murphy said, but they are part of a larger priority “to make your meal plan useful in other places than house dining halls.”

“We are also looking to create meal plans that are specifically designed for students in our cook-for-yourself communities, which will remain completely voluntary,” Peter Cummings, executive director of administration for DSL, said in an interview with The Tech yesterday.

In conjunction with these discussions, DSL is also in the preparatory stages of selecting a vendor for a new dining contract. Requests for proposal (RFP) should be sent out by the end of this month, according to Cummings.

Then, interested vendors will bid on the RFP. Likely candidates — major companies that are viable to service this campus — include Bon Appétit, the current house dining provider, whose original contract with MIT expired in 2016 and was renewed for a period of two years; Aramark, the current provider for several retail cafés on campus; and Sodexo, Cummings said.

“Our goal with the RFP is to bring house dining and some elements of the retail outlets under one contract,” Cummings explained. More broadly, DSL also “really wants a dining program that effectively and efficiently supports students’ dining throughout the day — we want to make it seamless to students. Right now, it’s not seamless.”

In addition to factors of cost and food quality, Cummings said that MIT is looking for a vendor with “corporate philosophies and actions on issues around social responsibility that are in alignment with MIT’s values,” as demonstrated through good food sourcing and fair labor practices.  MIT is also looking for a vendor with a “track record of being innovative” and a desire to “bring the dining experience closer to the students,” such as through test kitchens and cooking demonstrations.

For students, regardless of which vendor DSL ultimately chooses, the expectation is that the quality of food in house dining will be maintained, Cummings said.

For dining and retail employees, standard practice dictates that management staff often change with a change in companies, but service staff, who are unionized, may stay on if they wish.

If progress continues according to schedule, the bidding and decision-making process will culminate with a new dining contract taking effect on July 1, 2018.