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New House Dining program off to a great start

Students report high satisfaction with quality, variety and service.
From left, members of the women's soccer team eat in the South dining room with views of the Charles River and Boston skyline: Valerie Andersen '15, Jessica Ong '15, Kaithlyn Nealon '14, Samantha Fleischmann '14 and Meghan Wright '13.
From left, members of the women's soccer team eat in the South dining room with views of the Charles River and Boston skyline: Valerie Andersen '15, Jessica Ong '15, Kaithlyn Nealon '14, Samantha Fleischmann '14 and Meghan Wright '13.
Photo: Tom Gearty

Over the past three weeks, MIT Campus Dining, in partnership with food service company Bon Appétit, rolled out the new, highly anticipated student dining plan featuring all-you-care-to-eat service, new facilities, and a greater range of options than the campus has seen in decades.

“It’s going incredibly well,” says Henry Humphreys, senior associate dean of residential life and dining. “Bon Appétit has been an excellent partner to MIT. The feedback about the quality and the variety of the food has been overwhelmingly positive.”

“The chefs and cooks are excited and energized about the new menus,” adds Cheryl Walker, general manager for Bon Appétit at MIT. “We’re a very different type of company. We really try to be creative and cutting edge, using fresh, local ingredients.”

The new dining plan is featured in each of MIT’s five dining halls in undergraduate dorms — Baker, McCormick, Next, Simmons and The Howard Dining Hall in Masseh — and each has its own unique personality.

“There are subcultures in each of the different houses, and the menus reflect that,” says Jim Lechance, executive chef for Bon Appétit. For example, the smokehouse station is popular in Next, while Simmons diners tend to prefer the salad bar, Lechance says, adding that the sushi bar in Baker served 1,200 pieces in its first week alone.

McCormick Housemaster Charles Stewart, professor of political science, says he thought the dining plan was going well in his dorm and noted the extensive, creative food options. He says he especially noticed the enthusiasm of first-year students.

“During orientation, the first-year students were spending a lot of time in the dining hall with new friends,” Stewart says. “We’re seeing that spirit continue into the school year. I’m seeing students getting breakfast by themselves and asking to sit with other students who they see sitting alone.”

“The new dining plan has definitely helped create a family environment,” says senior Anne Juan, a student member of the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) that developed the structure of the new program in 2010. “Now when people go down for dinner, they sit down and catch up with friends.”

Juan says the new dining hall in Masseh has been especially helpful with creating a sense of community. “The Howard is such a beautiful, big, open space,” Juan says. “I get to see all sorts of people … I’m in love with it.”

One goal of the new plan was to promote healthier eating on campus. For many student athletes, who make up a significant proportion of the student body, the previous food offerings were not sufficient for a healthy diet.

“I wouldn’t feel full after dinner,” says Maggie Lloyd, captain of the women’s cross country and track teams. Under the old à la carte system, Lloyd and many of her teammates found that an entrée and two sides were not enough food to sustain their active lifestyles. As an athlete, she says the all-you-care-to-eat plan was serving her better.

Lloyd says she and her cross country teammates were using the plan to increase their intake of healthy proteins, especially dairy. “We’re going through unprecedented amounts of milk,” she says.

Even with all the improvements, students still have some constructive criticism for the new system. Lloyd, for instance, wants more entrées available after 8 p.m., when many athletes arrive after their practices. Bon Appétit also experienced some delays in opening some of the specialty food stations planned for each dining hall, and posting menus to the Bon Appétit website has been inconsistent.

Walker says that she welcomes student comments, questions — and complements. “Community feedback is going to help us maintain a great program,” she says.

Walker says that the chefs, who are committed to cooking fresh food and limiting waste, are still getting used to the flow of traffic and that students can expect more consistent food availability in the future. And Lachance says that recent fixes to Bon Appétit’s online menu management system should help ensure regular and accurate postings.

Lachance also noted that minor differences between the online menu and the actual offerings sometimes occur mid-week due to Bon Appétit’s dynamic nature. “Sometimes cool things come from new produce,” Lechance says. “We’re always taking advantage of whatever is fresh and local.”

Overall, students and staff seem to have a bright outlook for the new dining plan. “No one is complaining about the atmosphere in the dining halls or the quality of the food,” Stewart says. “We’re looking at the small things.”

“Student feedback is very positive,” Humphreys says. “We are well on our way to accomplishing our goals.”

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