Meal Plan Working Group to develop a new meal plan model

Model to be recommended to Chancellor Barnhart and Dean Nelson by the end of the semester

The Meal Plan Working Group is in the process of developing a meal plan model which optimizes plan value and flexibility, encourages the use of meals, and ensures a long-term financially sustainable dining program. The group was charged by the Division of Student Life June 2019 in response to the changes to the meal plan proposed and then paused in Spring 2019. The group met for the first time Sept. 27. 

Last year’s proposed meal plan changes were met with much student dissatisfaction due to inadequate communication and student involvement in the decision-making process. 

In an interview with The Tech, Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes said that the Meal Plan Working Group is receiving input from students by including members of the House Dining Committee (HDC) in working group meetings, facilitating discussions with different dorms and their respective heads of houses and interested residents, and opening up an online form where students can provide feedback.

Hayes also said that it was important that students get a better idea about the complexity involved in developing a meal plan model that satisfies the variety of challenges and constraints that the group is faced with. 

Hayes said that some challenges and factors that are being considered include the price of each meal, the hours of operation of the different dining halls, the variety of food options, and compensation for Bon Appetit staff. 

According to the group’s webpage, additional challenges include the high operating costs of maintaining food service facilities, limited student participation due to flexibility for upper-level students and students living in cook-for-yourself residences, and proximity of dining options. 

Hayes stated that the Meal Plan Working Group intends to take these different constraints, in addition to data from last year (number of meals used, when meals swipes were being used, average cost per meal, and type of plans available) into account while modelling potential solutions.

Hayes said one of the most complex issues that the Meal Plan Working Group faces is how dining dollars are spent. Dining dollars were recently added to the meal plan as a means of providing students with more portability by ensuring that students did not have to return to the residence halls for certain meals. 

However, after finding that the majority of dining dollars are spent in the student center for lunch, Hayes described how dining dollars did not seem to be solving the intended problem. Additionally, Hayes described the proposals the group is considering with dining dollars: making them optional, increasing them, or just removing them completely.  

Hayes said that another topic that has been heavily discussed by the working group meetings is breakfast. Based on data from last year, the HDC found that less than 20 percent of students use their dining swipes for breakfast. 

This was one of the initial issues which sparked last year’s proposed change in the meal plan — it was a large concern that students were not being nourished properly due to lower meal plan requirements. Hayes noted that many students feel as though the high cost of using a meal swipe for breakfast is disproportionate to what they receive. 

Hayes also noted that students not eating breakfast at the dining halls does not mean that they are not eating breakfast at all. Many students have chosen alternative breakfast options. 

The working group intends to deliver findings and recommendations to Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson by December 2019. The working group’s goal is to arrive at a meal plan model which can be successfully be instituted for the 2020–21 academic school year. 

Members of the MIT community can submit ideas for improving dining on campus via this online form.