SmartChoice? Highly doubtful.

While the current outburst against the new meal plan (subtly labeled as SmartChoice) began only recently, the SmartChoice plan has been in the works for quite some time. Whilst conducting research on the plan, we found a 2006 article by The Dartmouth about the future of dining at the College.  In that article, the former Dartmouth Dining Service (DDS) Director Tucker Rossiter revealed that DDS was considering the idea of moving to an all-you-can-eat meal plan. Unfortunately for DDS (and fortunately for students), no single dining facility on campus was large enough to institute that plan. The idea to institute a meal plan was largely in response to a 2004 study of DDS conducted by Ricca Associates (a food services consultant). The consultants, according to former Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman, said that things were so bad they were “amazed that [DDS was] still open.” Now, after the administration has spent millions of dollars renovating Thayer, the all-you-can-eat meal plan once again looms over campus like an inexorably approaching storm cloud.

After our research, we suspect that SmartChoice has not only been in the works for quite some time (and inspired the renovation of Thayer into an all-you-can-eat facility), but also that it was the product of the Ricca Associates study back in 2004. Just look at the smarmy title, it screams “out-of-town consultant,” particularly when compared to the current meal plans’ names which lovingly reference the College. 

Yet, we are afraid that the administration did not get their money’s worth from these consultants – or whoever designed this meal plan. The plan is supposed to derive new revenue from “missed meals” or when students do not walk to Thayer and eat the exact number of meals that they have purchased. Thinking that this plan will increase revenues is beyond optimistic to the point of lunacy – for several reasons. 

The first is that students simply will not miss meals as often here as they would at other colleges, especially those in urban centers. The major reasons that students miss meals at dining halls are quite simply: location, other options, and non-student friends. A college with a large campus spread throughout a city might reasonably expect that students wouldn’t want to make the long trek to the dining hall every few hours. We both live in the River…and we still walk to the dining halls for three meals a day. As for other off-campus dining options, let’s be realistic.

The average SmartChoice plan offers 14 meals a week. That means that students would have to eat approximately seven meals off-campus per week (one a day), assuming the normal three meals per day eating schedule. For those students currently on the Mini-Green plan (like one of the authors), they would have to eat 11 meals off-campus every week. Can we really expect that students will be eating off-campus that often? This is Hanover – the local restaurants are sparse and not exactly distant from the campus. Who would miss that many meals per week, especially when the new plan already offers so few meals? Starving students will walk a block or two to get back to campus and go to Thayer rather than miss a meal.

The final reason for missing meals would be non-student friends. If you go to NYU, but want to catch a meal with friends from Columbia (or any other of the many educational institutions in New York City), you cannot do that at the NYU dining hall. Once again, this incentive simply does not exist in Hanover. For most students, their friends are all students at Dartmouth – and they eat together at the dining halls. 

Even if we grant that the plan will increase revenues (which we highly doubt for the reasons above), it won’t fix DDS. This is just a temporary fix to a long-term problem, like raising payroll taxes half a percent to fund Social Security for another six months. This plan does not get at the fundamental problem: DDS is inefficient.

In the above-mentioned article, the former Dean Redman, said that the College and DDS were committed to providing a “living wage…” to DDS employees. Of course, that term actually means: jobs that compensate workers incredibly higher than comparable jobs in the area. The lowest union position gets between 25-50% more for their salary – and unbelievably more benefits than a local worker doing the same job. In case you didn’t know, nearly every DDS worker is unionized. Only Collis remains free to adjust to the labor market. Small wonder that Collis consistently has better service and food. Of course, SmartChoice will greatly reduce Collis’ revenue in favor of the unionized Class of 1953 Commons. We are very skeptical of the “meal exchange program” which seems clunky and will most likely frighten freshmen away from Collis and The Hop as you will obviously get less with a one-plate “meal equivalent” than with an all-you-can-stuff-in-your-face meal at ‘53 Commons. In essence, the plan will destroy the one place that doesn’t overpay workers.

For further proof that DDS is incredibly inefficient, you only need to look below the surface of their ridiculously overpriced goods. In the past fourteen years, the cost for the smallest plan has risen 1.75 times faster than inflation. That’s nearly double the inflation rate. And they are still not making enough profit? This doesn’t sound like a problem with DBA, but a problem with the DDS unions. That beast is sucking DDS dry. If President Kim really wants to find a solution, he’s going to have to deal with this root problem, not just impose a system that tries to squeeze more money out of students. That’s ridiculous on two levels.

First off, we are already paying a substantial amount of money to attend this institution. We love the College, but we don’t think that punishing students to pay for out-of-control union wages and benefits is a valid part of the College’s mission. In other words, don’t starve the students, starve the beast. Secondly, it’s just a temporary fix. What will President Kim do in five or ten years when DDS needs yet more money after costs rise at double the inflation rate again? Unlike The Dartmouth Review’s alternative, the Lone Pine Meal Plan, SmartChoice doesn’t plan for the future. The Lone Pine Meal Plan (which our editor personally presented to President Kim) is an alternative to SmartChoice which cuts costs while improving service. The entire plan can be found in this issue of the Review or online at our website.

Oh, and if you still for some reason think that DDS isn’t ridiculously costly, we’d like to note that Princeton offers an unlimited meals option at its all-you-can-eat dining facilities for $5,473. That is $500 less a year than our SmartChoice20 plan…which only offers 20 meals per week (which is less than the healthy three per day on average). So for about the same price, you will get less than the normal amount of meals per week – none of which roll over. 

At the same time, there are major issues with any all-you-can-eat plan. First off, it encourages binge eating. If students only buy the average plan or are on financial aid, they will only have an average of two meals per day. So, instead of eating smaller meals over the course of the day (personally we purchase food at the dining hall at least four times each day), students are forced to consume larger meals more infrequently. This is unhealthy. Even the College’s own recommended nutrition website recommends “a healthy meal plan of five to six small meals per day…” One would expect that a doctor would shy away from a meal plan that will so negatively impact the health of the student body.

In addition to the negative health effects, we find SmartChoice to be morally wrong. It unfairly subsidizes certain students at the expensive of others. As one alumnae pointed out, it generally subsidizes men (who usually eat more) at the cost of women. When Dartmouth first became co-ed an all-you-can-eat meal system was in place. Dartmouth women did not want to be subsidizing men’s eating habits—they found this to be sexist and campaigned for change. Subsequently, the College changed to an á la carte system. Why are we moving backwards? This plan is troubling on yet another level. With such low meal allotments it is clear students are expected to eat off-campus, however this unfairly punishes students on financial aid who are unable to eat off-campus often. We are worried about a possible split between well-off students who buy the smallest plan and eat off-campus often and students on financial aid who have to eat mostly on-campus.

Once SmartChoice is in effect, the DDS will be wary of raising prices anymore for fear of driving even more students off-campus. There will also be a large increase in the amount of food waste because students will have no financial incentive to not throw away uneaten food. Consequently, the only way for DDS to get higher margins will be to reduce food quality. Dartmouth College currently has an A- for campus dining on CollegeProwler, a third-party website that ranks colleges across the country. Only two Ivies have higher ratings – both of which are also in substantially larger towns. Interestingly enough, CollegeProwler praises Dartmouth for our “options” and our “variety, flexibility, and convenience.” Sadly, those will all be things of the past with our new dining plan. From an admissions perspective, it is essential to realize that any student wary of spending four years a miniscule town in New Hampshire will be very concerned with the quality, convenience, and choice of campus dining.

The move to SmartChoice will hurt admissions, student life, and student health as well as force students to subsidize other students’ eating habits (with tinges of sexism). Oh, and it won’t fix any problem with DDS – so you can look forward to lower quality food as DDS tries to expand its margins to break even on its ridiculously high wages and benefits packages. We realize that President Kim arrived at the College halfway into this whole process – the plans for SmartChoice and the ‘53 Commons were already in motion. Our hope is to point out the massive flaws and minimal benefits in SmartChoice in order to sway the administration into choosing an alternative that embraces competition and innovation. An alternative plan that looks towards the future and that helps students, not just overpaid union members. A plan that keeps the culture of Dartmouth as fantastic as it is now – and that doesn’t harm our ability to attract quality students in the future. We hope that our alternative, the Lone Pine Meal Plan, offers at the very least the correct structure and foundation for that plan. We do know that SmartChoice is not that plan – and in its current form it is not just wrong, but malevolently so.

 —J.P. Harrington and Stuart A. Allan