de Guardiola: Food is Not a Monopoly

by Mercedes de Guardiola | 5/23/16 5:30pm

In rankings of American college campus dining services, Dartmouth often ranks in the top tier. However, although Dartmouth Dining Services does offer quality products and a wide range meal options for students, there are several areas that need significant improvements. While students have brought up many of these problems over the past few years, they have gone unaddressed by the College.

First, by requiring students living on campus to purchase a meal plan, DDS operates a monopoly on student dining. In the past, DDS has argued that this is benefits students, as not requiring a meal plan resulted in a “class system being developed.” However, this statement did not consider the fact that students may not choose to spend their money on a meal plan because of issues with financial aid and the fact that they are already required to find ways to cover the other $63,624 needed to attend Dartmouth.

In addition, as many students frequently notice, food sold at multiple DDS locations is marked up by as much as two or three times the price at which it is sold in town. Since DDS buys their goods wholesale, and since Dartmouth is not located in an area in which food prices are overwhelmingly high, there is no apparent reason for the markup. Given that DDS has inadvertently boasted in the past that it has made around and a $1 million in net revenue each year “despite the economic recession” from 2009 to 2011, theoretically it should be possible to cut prices for students attending a non-profit institution.

Students should also be given more of the money back. Currently, $100 of DBA “rolls over” at the end of each term. But if students have enough DBA to take advantage of that system, it doesn’t really make a difference in the long run since they will probably be stuck in the same situation the following term if they follow the same eating habits. Dartmouth students should not be penalized if they do not eat as much as the meal plan expects.

Even given the high prices students pay, however, it is hard for students to receive sufficient accommodation in dining when necessary. For example, while many colleges offer kosher dining options on campus, DDS does not offer an option that is certified by Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. While Jewish students publicly pushed for increased standards last year so that they could eat the food in the dining hall, no official changes have yet been made and the task has been delegated to a working group. At the end of the day, since the school requires students to purchase a dining plan, they must offer meals every student can eat.

Regardless of dietary concerns, another frustrating aspect of DDS is the limited weekend and summer service. On weekends, Collis Cafe and several food stations in the Class of 1953 Commons shut down. While standard 9-to-5 office jobs might have weekends off, it’s not the standard in the food industry: if students weren’t forced to pay for a meal plan, DDS would have to compete with restaurants in town on weekends.

Likewise, students should not be forced to pay the same price for less service during the summer. As The Dartmouth Editorial Board discussed in the May 5 verbum ultimatum “Real Term, Real Education,” the school needs to start treating sophomore summer as a real term. If the College requires students to be on campus, they cannot penalize them for it by charging the same amount as a regular term for less of everything. Obviously, there are clear financial concerns given that there are fewer students on campus. But if that is such a financial burden on the school and the services it provides, then Dartmouth needs to look at ways to adjust the summer term instead of forcing students to pay for it.

Ultimately, many of these issues have gone unaddressed or unsolved because there is no accountability. As DDS holds a monopoly over students living on campus, there is no way for students to forcibly enact change. Students cannot vote with their wallets: whether or not they want to spend their money at DDS locations, money left over will go to DDS anyways. Currently, the school provides no poll or serious end-of-year survey to gather student thoughts on DDS. If students are to be forced to pay for it, they should be able to have a much bigger voice in it.

It is not clear why any of the above areas so often cited by Dartmouth students as factors that should be changed have not elicited public scrutiny from the College. But ultimately, there is no reason why an institution that prides itself on being a non-profit for higher learning should allow a service to forcibly make a profit from its students.