Dartmouth Dining Services Reform

Dartmouth Dining Services is unpopular among the student body for its high costs and mandatory investment. All Dartmouth freshmen are compelled to buy the most expensive meal plan during their first term, which contributes to the overcrowding of FOCO. For the sake of brevity, this article will primarily discuss the costs of the DDS system.

The SmartChoice20, required for all freshmen for their fall term is $2,000 and it is intended to provide all of their food needs for that term. Perhaps an easier way to look at the cost would be to look at the cost per swipe, since DBA can go into the negative. Each meal-swipe costs $8.88. Assuming that a person were to use all of their meal-swipes in a week, given the best circumstances, they would average being able to spend $7.79 at the various eating options that are not FOCO. In other words, DDS is taking a dollar of profit every time a student swipes. However, Dartmouth students often are unable to use their full number of meal-swipes. It’s worth noting that the aforementioned unadulterated profits come from the cheapest plan by meal swipe. In fact, no other plan allows students to buy meal-swipes for less than $10, with some plans ranging as high as $17 per meal-swipe. Again, these swipes, during dinner, the most valuable period, can only be used to buy $10 worth of items. Every meal plan is set up to provide Dartmouth Dining Services with large profits for providing no extra services. This is only one part of the problem of cost.

Both The Review and several other local sources have noted how expensive the items sold by DDS in relation to the Co-op, which, it should be noted, is not known for its affordability. Perhaps the most ludicrous example of the DDS effect on prices is the sale of a miserly fruit cup for $5.50, not including tax. Not all items are marked up to this extent, but it suffices to say that essentially every item DDS sells, it sells for more than any local competitor.

All of this information is widespread knowledge on campus, so instead of continuing to spend time talking in minutiae about an obviously poor service, let’s talk about how DDS could be better. First, food at the College suffers from a frightening lack of competition in all areas. Not only are all of the food services provided by the same company (with the exception of the extremely popular KAF, which often has twenty-minute lines to get pastries or coffee), but students have no choice as to whether to buy a meal plan. They must participate in a bad system. Both of these policies allow Dartmouth Dining Services to nickel and dime. Luckily, both are relatively easy to fix. One solution would be to contract Novack Café, Collis, or the HOP to an external organization. While this change could be somewhat expensive, it would become quickly obvious whether it successfully introduced competition and lowered prices.

Another even easier solution would be to allow Declining Balance Account (DBA) to be used at some of the local grocery stores or restaurants. While some of the accounting from using meal-swipes could be difficult to arrange, since the dollar value of meal-swipes is variable and to some extent intangible, DBA represents actual dollars and as such should pose no problem for the College to allow students to use them in town. It should be particularly important to allow students to buy from grocery stores because of the health benefits. Both introducing a competitor to DDS or allowing grocery and other food services in town to take part in the Dartmouth meal plan system would likely reduce costs for students and improve health.

Other policies than introducing competition would also likely have a positive effects. While the public is allowed access to only the most bare-bones information about Dartmouth Dining Services’ costs, revenues, or profits, we do know a few things. As Dartblog has reported several times over the last few years, pay for DDS employees is particularly large for the Upper Valley area. In 2010, Dartblog reported a help wanted advertisement from the College for a starting position as a cook helper. The advertisement cited pay starting at more than $15/hour, along with generous health benefits, 5-6 weeks of paid vacation, and significant opportunities for advancement within the organization. While this writer does not begrudge any DDS employees of their pay, we must question the logic behind paying on the whole more than 50% more than the Upper Valley for comparable jobs. Why do we create a class above their neighbors, when it is doubtful that they are significantly more accomplished? Moreover, this unfair inequality is built on the back of a struggling institution. The College has been making significant budget cuts, raising tuition and other costs considerably, and contemplates selling its golf-course or expanding the student body to continue as a successful institution. Meanwhile, it continues a policy of unfair pay that cannot help but create nepotism in the hiring process. Given the general lack of public information about DDS, it is impossible to tell where other sources of inefficiency may be, but given its monopoly status, they undoubtedly exist.

A final suggestion to improve cost will undoubtedly prove unpopular with the administration: dissolve and hire out the food services at Dartmouth to an outside corporation like Aramark or Sodexo. Various firms have different reputations, and would likely submit different bids for varying qualities of food. The College should seek out those bids and see if any of those companies can do better than DDS. If they can’t, then DDS should obviously keep the contract. If they can, however, the school should evaluate its options and seriously consider switching to a different company.

To be fair to DDS, dining services across the Ivy League have also been increasing costs on students. Many other institutions offer dining at an even higher price than Dartmouth and require all of their students to buy a meal-plan as well. Yale, for instance, offers its main meal-plan for $6,800, and requires its freshman to buy it. This plan includes 21 meal-swipes per week, and no equivalent for DBA as I understand. Three terms of the SmartChoice 20 would cost a returning student a little over $6,000 themselves and offer $600 in DBA. It should be noted that Yale’s dining hall system involves more swipe-in, all-you-can-eat dining halls, similar to The Class of 1950 Commons, than it does a-la-carte options.

Will Dartmouth continue alongside the rest of the Ivy League by upping costs of the student dining plans, creating increasingly long lines by raising the size of the student body and diffusing school spirit? Or will Dartmouth try to make its students healthier and happier at a lower cost?