Mines Dining is communist… Ok, so obviously it’s not really communist but it does seem to me some of its failures have similar roots to the failures of the much maligned political philosophy. But before I delve into my theory let me back up a bit. In this article, I aim to thoughtfully analyze the state of our main campus dining facility and constructively propose some improvements (are you reading PCJ?). So let’s begin.
Last April, I visited Mines for the first time. On my tour of campus as we passed Mines Market my tour guide gave his own decidedly positive spin on the state of food there. Market, he said, is a great place to eat if you like to eat a lot and don’t really care what you’re eating. My own experience is that this description is accurate. Meals are repetitive. Food is often bland, over seasoned, or oily. Ingredients are of low quality and dishes poorly constructed. On top of this, there is poor cleanliness. Cups and utensils are routinely so dirty that the remnants of previous meals can be scratched off of them.
The current state of Mines Market has several consequences. For one it is sometimes difficult for people who have dietary restrictions (self-imposed or not) to consistently find food that nourishes them. People who are lactose-intolerant, have celiac disease or choose to eat gluten-free, vegetarians and vegans, people who eat only Kosher or Halal foods, and even athletes are all in this way partially excluded from campus dining. Another consequence is that few if any upperclassmen choose to eat there. Many pack lunches, choose other on campus options or eat out in Golden.
Freshmen of course lack other options. Stuck with $3,000 meal plans, it simply doesn’t make sense to eat elsewhere. It is particularly ridiculous that if students were to purchase each meal they buy in a meal plan individually instead they would save money (I know, I did the math). The cost is also significantly higher than the cost that would be paid for groceries to sustain a student for the same time period. The consequence of high cost combined with the state of Market itself is that students have little choice but to be deprived of both choice and the joy of eating excellent food. I understand that as issues facing the world today the latter does not rank highly in importance but for the students of Mines some great food could go a long way. Higher quality and more suitable food could reduce anxiety and improve physical health. The food we eat is a significant part of who we are as individuals, life is short, and food matters.
However poor it may be, the current state of our dining does not, in my opinion, reflect poorly on Mines as a school. Several years ago, I listened to an episode of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History which discussed a college’s food as an indicator of its priorities. (I encourage you to listen to the episode, called Food Fight.) After reviewing both the financial state and dining halls of several colleges, Gladwell drew a negative correlation between a colleges’ investment in food and its investment in student financial aid and other student services. Schools with worse food, he claimed, tended to also accept students less able to pay and offer aid money to help them attend while schools with better food tended to provide less financial aid, admit more students able to pay full price and spend that money on ‘extras’ such as food in order woo more wealthy students. While Mines’s endowment totals over $250,000,000 (Curious about this number? Find the Oredigger’s previous article on the endowment online at Oredigger.net), it may not be wise to spend a larger proportion of money on dining if we care about providing opportunity to disadvantaged students.
How, if not by investmenting money, should the problem be approached? My answer is by adding competition. The way it operates now, Mines Market not only has a monopoly as the only place to use meal swipes on campus but it also has certain income. The vast majority of customers pay up front at the beginning of each semester meaning that whether or not Market delivers food that’s good or bad its operators are paid the same providing little incentive for quality output (see the relationship to communism).
The operator of Mines Dining, Sodexo, also operates all other campus dining options (with the exception of Book & Brew) making adding competition somewhat difficult. Additionally, I understand the school has an interest in requiring meal plans for freshmen to ensure they are getting enough to eat. While eliminating them would increase competition, it may not be realistic. However, required freshman meal plans could be implemented such that on a weekly or biweekly basis students would choose how many meals they wanted to purchase for the next period. This would mean direct losses for Sodexo if students decided to purchase fewer meal swipes thereby motivating management to provide better food. Additionally, an option to buy less meal swipes than is the minimum now should be added. Another way to introduce competition would be to open a non-Sodexo operated dining area on campus or to replace an existing Sodexo operated place with one not operated by Sodexo. In addition to allowing more meal exchanges this would significantly increase competition for Mines Market.
Increasing competition stands to benefit everyone involved. Sodexo would make more profit when people who don’t currently choose to eat at Mines Market do because they find it more appealing, Mines will retain potential students who are including quality of food in their criteria for choice of college, and students of Mines will enjoy more desirable and appropriate food and as an extension, quality of life. Students with dietary restrictions could make their lack of satisfaction known by reducing their meals and thereby encourage more options for themselves and others. Even the chefs may enjoy working with some higher quality ingredients or making more interesting foods.
My ideas are not the only possible answers to improving campus food at Mines but I do believe they would be a good starting place. I hope I’ve made it clear that small changes could go a long way toward changing food at Mines for the better.