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Residential Life Task Force
 

DINING OPTIONS

The Dining Subcommittee began its work by reviewing the results of the Housing and Dining Survey and generally reviewing the history of the house dining system at Smith, and challenging ourselves to identify how the current dining program relates to the mission of residential life. The Dining Subcommittee (Kathleen Zieja, director of residence and dining services, chair; Joe McNeish, lead catering cook; Miriam Quintal '04; Elizabeth Spelman, professor, Philosophy; and Margo Welch '84) determined early on that the subcommittee would hold a number of focus groups to probe and gather more data on dining and options. Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer also assisted this subcommittee and provided information regarding kosher meal plans and the dining program at Duke University. We also incorporated some of the suggestions that were provided by a consulting dietitian from Tufts University in our discussions with students (see Appendix 10).

Housing and Dining Survey

Preferences include:

More flexibility regarding meal hours (first year class expressed highest need).

Availability of partial meal plan options.

Increased options for juniors and seniors to prepare their own meals in apartment style living arrangements.

Increased options for more variety within the meal plan structure; low fat, low carbohydrate option, more vegetarian options, and some interest in vegan, kosher, and halal dining.

General Findings:

50.5% of the students stated that they would opt to eat in a traditional dining room affiliated with their house (currently 80% of students dine in their own house Monday through Friday, and 62% of students dine in their own house on weekends).

23.7% of the students stated that they would opt to eat in any traditional dining room (not necessarily in their own house) or one with longer hours.

19.6% of seniors would like to cook their own meals (currently about 3% of the student body prepare their own meals).

Current Conditions

Students living in college residences (other than Friedman, Tenney and Hopkins) have a mandatory 21-meal board plan. There are 19 professional kitchens that provide food and service to 26 dining rooms (13 kitchens are open seven days a week and the other 6 are open only on weekdays).

Students are required to have lunch at their own house dining assignment. The college policy of dining in your own house at lunch was implemented years ago because central campus dining rooms were being swamped at lunchtime. The houses located closest to the academic buildings are some of the smallest and do not have tables, chairs, or kitchen facilities to support extra students; additionally, students cannot gain access to these houses and there are no card readers in these units to verify if they are on the board plan. For breakfast and dinner, board paying students may eat in any other dining room for those meals but only as a guest of another student. Students who take 5-College courses may dine at the “host” institution as a free meal exchange.

Meal Times:
Breakfast – Monday through Friday - Hot Breakfast - 7:30 - 8:30 a.m.
- Continental - 8:30 - 10:30 a.m.
Saturday - Continental - 8:30 - 9:30 a.m.
Sunday - Continental - 8:30 - 9:30 a.m.
Lunch – Monday through Friday - 11:45 - 1:00 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday Brunch - 11:00 - 1:00 p.m.

Dinner – Monday through Thursday - 5:45 – 7:00 p.m.
Friday through Sunday - 5:15 – 6:30 p.m.

Other dining activities:

Focus Groups

Nine focus groups were conducted in February and early March to better understand and explore a variety of questions that surfaced as a result of the Housing and Dining Survey. The groups included: residential life staff; randomly selected samples of students; two house groups; the RADS Reps; and Residence and Dining Services staff. The discussions were helpful and provided more depth to survey results, especially as it relates to more flexibility for longer meal hours and options. Of particular interest was the variation in student responses depending upon whether focus groups were conducted in the houses with house residents, or among randomly selected students at public locations around campus. In the house-only discussions, students said they would forego improvements in variety and food quality in order to keep their own house dining room open. Minority opinions or needs were not voiced. Students supported increased options in groups conducted outside the houses.

FINDINGS

Advantages of the current dining system

The dining program has been an essential part of the Smith experience for decades. Overall, students voiced their appreciation for house dining. They stated that the dining system is what makes Smith unique and enhances their residential experience. One student stated, "Going to breakfast in p.j.'s is popular." Students were quick to point out the positive aspects of living in a community and the importance of their relationships with the dining and housekeeping staff. A concerned student said, "it is hard to be a community if the house doesn't eat together."

A central theme that emerged from all but one of the focus groups was that we should retain the house dining program. The Residential Life staff was the only group that clearly expressed a need to explore new dining options for students. The residential staff are more veteran students, and their discussions support the survey findings that some students would prefer to live on their own and prepare their own food. An email received from a junior also supported the need for more options:
" I hardly ever eat in my dining room—I do not particularly like many of the "exotic" dishes that are prepared and find myself oftentimes grabbing a bagel or ordering out. So I would prefer if Smith had more dining options."

For the most part, students like to dine in their houses. They expressed fondness for the fact that they live in a house (not a dormitory) and the dining and living experience help create “one big family.” Students like the amenities and comforts of the house system and dining rooms become places for spontaneous discussions. The house dining rooms, and especially Thursday night candlelight dinner, encourage students to linger after meals. Additionally, students appreciate the fact that they can have faculty and staff as guests. Many also like to invite the House Fellows to dinner.

Limitations of the current dining system

Students were quick to identify some constraints within the house dining system. The complaints related to a lack of flexibility and menu variety. Except for one student, there were no complaints about the lunch serving time. Most, however, would like to see expanded hours for breakfast and dinner. Currently, hot breakfast is served only until 8:30 a.m. Students expressed interest in an additional half hour (service to 9:00 a.m.). Dinner is served from 5:45 – 7:00 p.m. during the week. Many students expressed a desire to keep one site open until at least 8:00 p.m.

While modest extensions to meal times would help some students, there was a general interest in at least one venue with dramatically expanded hours. Students thought the Campus Center might be of use in this way. In the house-based focus groups, students stated that we shouldn’t close their own house dining room. In all discussions, students stated that the Davis dollars ($25.00) credit provided to each board paying student does not go far. Students understood that increasing flexibility would affect our current structure.

Issues that were discussed included the need for OneCard meal swiping and identification. One student who must use her OneCard at Tyler currently expressed displeasure with this process. In all discussions, however, students felt further consolidation shouldn’t occur without first improving exterior door access to the “host” dining room. Currently, students who are assigned to weekend dining locations cannot get into the host dining site and this leads to “propped” doors or the feeling that they are not welcomed at the house. A OneCard reader at all dining locations would also allow us to review patterns of behavior and provide data that could be used to respond to requests for flexible dining.

As we discussed improving dining flexibility with options at the Campus Center and/or further consolidation, students shared some serious concerns for house community and communication issues. For example, some house announcements are made at meal time by the tradition of “clinking” glasses. One student suggested that further thought be given to having a dining room not attached to a residential house.

At all meetings, many students voiced a strong desire for a partial meal plan as an option. There is great interest among students in not having to pay for meals that they do not eat. Breakfast and some weekend dining are the meals that students miss most often. A few students stated, "I never eat breakfast; more consolidation for this meal would be ok." This cost sensitivity would also be expressed by the frustration that we do not make food and beverages available around the clock.

Another area that sparked great interest was menu variety. Students' desire for greater variety was reinforced by the report from a consulting dietitian from Tufts University (Appendix 10). She reviewed our menus and conducted some focus groups in early February (see Appendix 11). Both students and the consultant saw a need for more menu options, less fat, more variety, more lean protein items, and more ethnic foods (only if seasoned properly!). In addition, while many students stated that there have been major improvements with vegetarian and especially vegan options, there continues to be a strong voice for more vegan options and to include organic food items. We recognize there is an interest in making seasonal, locally-grown and organic food an integral part of the Smith dining program. There is also an interest in providing a kosher/halal dining option, but not necessarily at the expense of the current Kosher Kitchen. Most students recognized the need to provide a kitchen that would regularly be able to serve kosher and halal meals.

SUMMARY

The college has an opportunity to provide some truly creative approaches to respond to the students and their interest in a more flexible dining program. Many students desire better options and products. The challenge will be to strike a balance between today's traditional dining program and a more flexible program that will provide greater choice and include dining options in the Campus Center. The committee recognizes that there will be financial implications as we explore new options. If it is not feasible to keep the current dining operation (19 kitchens) and offer substantially greater variety of services, we recommend that a number of meal plan scenarios and options be explored, testing the financial impact of those against the existing house dining program. By and large, students understand these budgetary challenges and acknowledge the need to balance traditional dining with other alternatives.

PROPOSALS OF THE DINING SUBCOMMITTEE:

Due to the tensions between the consideration of further dining consolidations to achieve more flexibility and options, and the strong desire not to change the house dining system, we recommend that further feasibility studies be conducted. Despite the fact that students desire more options, there is a real fear that major changes to house dining will be detrimental.

Basic tenets:

Short-Term recommendations (to be implemented 03-04):


Mission

Housing Options

Theme Based Living

Structure of
Residence Life
Staffing

Dining Options

Conclusion

Appendices

 
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