Verbum Ultimum: Eat Free or Die

Dartmouth Dining Services can better prioritize student interests.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 10/20/17 12:45am

Dartmouth should serve its students’ interests. The College needs to take in some revenue to survive, but it should not do so on the backs of its students. Dartmouth Dining Services would be a better business, and students would be happier and better off, if dining options at Dartmouth were made more competitive, if student meal plan requirements were relaxed or abandoned and if declining balance account funds could be spent at off-campus eateries.

Monopolies succeed at the expense of consumers. Adam Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations” that more options in a marketplace benefits the consumer and “must tend to make the retailers both sell cheaper and buy dearer, than if the whole trade was monopolized.” DDS functions as a monopoly: With the exception of the meal swipe-free King Arthur Flour Café in Baker Library, the entire campus is reliant on DDS. What’s more, DDS, through its partnership with the College, forces students to buy mandated dining plans even if they live off-campus or in College-owned apartments. DDS is free to charge exorbitant prices for food, knowing that students will be forced to buy it anyway and that those who would otherwise choose to prepare their own food will have no financially viable option to do so. Since DDS is a private company, it is impossible to know how much money is made from these processes.

Though Hanover is not known for low food costs, DDS prices frequently rise above what seems reasonable. A pack of four Udi’s gluten free baked goods can be bought for $7 in a grocery store, but DDS’s Novack Cafe sells just one of the four pre-packaged muffins included for $3.55. A bottled Odwalla smoothie sells at DDS for $4.75, but that same bottle costs just $2.94 from other retailers. A bottle of Honest Tea can be bought for $1.29 or less, but at Dartmouth, the drink costs $3.50. The list goes on. This price gouging has detrimental effects on all Dartmouth students, but those who are less well off are particularly hard-hit. Less able to go into Hanover to eat or buy food, students can struggle to eat healthily when fresh fruit and vegetables begin to eat up their meal plans, either through expensive, swipe-heavy plans that prioritize the Class of 1953 Commons or through DBA costs at other eateries. DDS’ prices, then, may further cement class divides at a college that should seek to overcome them.

For first-term students, the requirement to enroll in the 20-swipe plan or the broadly similar 160-swipe per term plan creates access to plenty of food, but at a high cost that reduces free choice and agency and ostensibly benefits DDS’ bottom line. Both plans cost $2,230, making them among the most expensive meal plans. Since ’53 Commons — the only campus eatery in which meal swipes are redeemable directly, rather than as DBA equivalents — makes food in bulk rather than as individually prepared dishes, DDS is able to reduce its labor costs. Requiring first-years to be on these two meal plans may result in wider profit margins, but it dramatically reduces student choice, particularly for low-income students, since meal swipes have far less bang-for-their-buck at any other dining location.

Lines are growing appallingly long at DDS locations. It is now not uncommon to see students lined up almost to McNutt Hall from the doors of ’53 Commons. The overcrowded Collis Cafe remains all but unnavigable during peak hours. During dinner and lunch times, the Courtyard Cafe suffers from lines that can take up to 40 minutes — and there seems to have been no reduction in wait time after the cafe changed its food selections this year. Though some may argue that these problems were caused by the oversized Class of 2021, lines were nearly as long before their arrival. These issues may only worsen as the College considers adding as many as 1,000 new students.

There are many options that would make DDS into a far better dining service. One critical change is quite straightforward: Undermining the imposed monopoly. Many colleges and universities — including Harvard University, New York University and Pennsylvania State University — allow off-campus businesses to accept their meal plans’ equivalents of DBA, while others — like the University of Pennsylvania — provide off-campus discounts. Yale University allows students to use multiple meal swipes during the same period — that is, a student can use two swipes during lunch, rather than just one. Dartmouth should follow suit. Business in Hanover would likely jump at the chance for increased revenue from hungry students no longer worried about spending cash off-campus. An additional dining hall or local, third-party vendor stands in both new and existing facilities could help ameliorate these issues.

Dartmouth should strongly reconsider the requirement that students purchase on-campus meal plans. The policy curtails individual choice of a student body with diverse dietary needs and preferences. The College has constructed kitchens in almost all dormitories. If students wish to cook their meals outside the auspices of the College, they should be free to do so. If first-years are still required to enroll in a meal plan, the fall term requirement that they join the 20-meal-swipe-per-week or 160-swipe-per-term plans should be revisted. In addition, smaller-scale meal plans should be offered to all students. Finally, if alternatives to DDS exist — ones that are more cost-effective, less interested in gouging prices and more amenable to competition — they should be allowed to come to Dartmouth, either as a replacement to DDS or as a competitor.

Dartmouth can do better for its students, either by introducing a new food service provider or by creating a more competitive dining system at the College. Allowing off-campus businesses to accept DBA and removing meal plan requirements could greatly benefit all students.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the opinion staff, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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