Harvard must reevaluate its undergraduate dining program. The College’s single, unlimited dining plan is restrictive, inflexible, and unreasonable — in terms of both organization and price. The pandemic has highlighted these shortcomings of undergraduate dining at Harvard, while at the same time presenting an opportunity to implement positive changes.
Of the 98 percent of undergraduate students who live on campus, all must subscribe to the $7,236 mandatory meal plan. In a standard school year, this amounts to a minimum of about $33.50 a day — students who get to school later or whose finals end earlier could end up paying more than $36. This dining program is nothing short of an exploitative monopoly. Because an off-campus community is lacking, freshmen are ordinarily required to live on campus, and social life is centered around the on-campus experience. Students have no choice but to pay.
The College says it requires the unlimited meal plan to foster a central community experience within each House. But community through dining can be nurtured without charging for 21 meals a week — especially since many students don’t sit for every meal in the dining hall anyways.
In the mornings, many students stop by only for a quick bite at breakfast or skip the meal altogether. According to Harvard University Dining Services, only 40 percent of students attend breakfast. Similarly, during lunchtime, returning to their own house isn’t possible for all students. Students with tight schedules and those who live in the Quad or in houses with shorter lunch windows might have no other choice than to eat out. And for dinner, students often want to catch up with friends. Even if they want to use a meal swipe, interhouse dining is restrictive, and some houses ban first-years entirely. The rigid dining plan can force bonding with friends outside your house to happen outside of campus altogether — and cost money.
Because Harvard operates what is effectively a monopoly on dining, there is little students can do to control their dining experience. Students have been left at the College’s often nonsensical whims during the pandemic. During the 2020 fall semester, when the per diem rate was as high as $42 because of reduced time on campus, dining halls operated with a limited menu. Hot food was not served until mid-October. Breakfast was served cold throughout the semester. Moreover, food could not be eaten in the dining hall, so many meals were taken in students’ suites (or worse, singles).
Besides the pandemic, other atypical situations have left many Harvard students hungry and out of home. Last fall, Adams House dining hall was closed for two weeks because of a fruit fly infestation.
There’s no saying what dining restrictions the future may hold, either. During the first two weeks of this semester, all dining halls were available only for grab-and-go as students traveled back to campus. New variants or other unexpected circumstances could send students back to grab-and-go meals, while restaurants around campus remain open.
Creating community is not a sufficient reason to require a universal, complete meal plan at today’s Harvard, where pandemic-related disruptions have laid bare the monopolistic nature of the College’s dining program. A more flexible plan, where students are given a required floor fee of 10 or so weekly meals, would allow students greater freedom while still encouraging bonding within their house or Annenberg, the freshman dining hall. Alternatively, if such a program proved too volatile, the College could offer those living on campus the same arrangement they do to off-campus students: a choice between plans of five, 10, or all 21 meals per week. Moreover, when students who receive financial aid eat out, they could be reimbursed at a rate tied to their level of aid and the cost of a meal swipe. Students of all financial backgrounds would then be free to choose when, where, and how their money would be spent.
While we should all be grateful for the hard work and enthusiasm of our HUDS employees, students should not be forced to either dine in their own houses or effectively pay a fee each time they venture outside their house to grab a meal with friends. The dining program is unnecessary to its goal of fostering community at Harvard and monopolistic in nature. It must go.
Kanishka J. Reddy ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.