Opinion editorial

The new minimum meal plan is misguided

Reducing affordability and flexibility can only harm, not help students

MIT has recently announced a new minimum meal plan for the 2019–20 academic year: 150 meals and 100 dining dollars at a cost of $2,225.50 per semester. For the 2018-19 academic year, the minimum plan consisted of 125 meals and 290 dining dollars at a cost of $1,950 per semester.

The new plan is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The changes reflect a misdiagnosis of the issues that affect food affordability and accessibility on campus. Rather than assessing students’ eating habits directly, DSL administrators are using meal swipes as a proxy for meal consumption on campus. Their response does not take into account the variability of whether, when, and how students eat. Instead, students are being forced to accept a more expensive and less flexible plan.

Administrators have argued that under the current minimum meal plan, students are not eating a balanced number of meals each week because they are worried that they will run out of meal swipes before the semester ends. They have further cited data that meal swipe usage across dining halls in Fall 2018 fell 11 percent compared to Fall 2017.  

According to an FAQ document justifying the changes, “Replacing the 125-meal plan with a 150-meal plan will ensure students have no fewer than 10 meals per week.”

But at the risk of stating the obvious, the number of swipes students use is an accurate measurement of one thing only: how many meals they eat in dining halls. Meal swipe usage is correlated to, not indicative of, total meal consumption.

In fact, the new meal plan does not provide students with substantially more meals. If we assume that students spend around $8 on average on meals from campus food operations, the old minimum plan’s 290 dining dollars equates to approximately 36 meals. Adding that to the 125 meal swipes, the plan allows for about 161 total meals. By contrast, the new minimum plan contains about 150 + 13 = 163 meals. (Compare this to a $275.50 price increase.)

Dining dollars also add flexibility, an important factor in ensuring that students are actually able to access two or three meals per day.

Of course, different student schedules are best accommodated by different meal plan structures. For some students, it is plausible that dining dollars do not enable them eat more meals, and so they may need more swipes per semester. But in this case, the goal should be to increase the affordability — and thus desirability — of the plans with more swipes, as well as the quality of food in dining halls, rather than making all students bear higher costs.

Given that students do not seem to benefit from a new plan that increases meal swipes rather than meals, it is difficult not to wonder whether the plan is instead more lucrative for Bon Appetit.

Another justification administrators have offered is that the meal plan changes will encourage students to eat more meals in their dorms and consequently “refocus back on the house experience,” as The Tech has previously reported.

This claim feels somewhat callous in light of recent conversations surrounding housing on campus. Students have loudly and clearly articulated their concerns about administration-driven changes — such as the Senior House shutdown, the shift away from implementing a kitchen-based cook-for-yourself community in New Vassar, and the attempts to end mutual selection — arguing that these decisions have been detrimental to the uniqueness of MIT dorm culture and students’ ability to foster close living communities.

We can certainly debate specific actions in more detail, but the fact of the matter is that MIT students are the people on campus who best understand what is necessary for their communities to thrive. Administrators have too often disregarded these voices in favor of their own visions for what dorm culture should look like.

We ask that administrators refrain from using their ideas of community-building as an excuse for decreasing the affordability and flexibility of campus dining, and instead to be respectful of students’ autonomy and ability to shape their communities.

We recognize that administrators strive to make decisions in students’ best interests, but they can do more to ensure their perceptions truly align with student experiences.

Editorials are the official opinion of The Tech. They are written by the Editorial Board, which consists of Publisher Áron Ricardo Perez-Lopez, Editor in Chief Jessica Shi, Managing Editor Ivana Alardín, Executive Editor Nathan Liang, and Opinion Editor Fiona Chen. Senior Editor Nafisa Syed also contributed to this editorial.