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Kshitij Lauria '13: Refactoring the Refectory

If you really love the food at the Ratty, you can stop reading right now: we have fundamental disagreements that no opinions column of mine can change. I spent all of freshman year avoiding the Ratty, camping outside the V-Dub waiting for the doors to open, going through my flex points way too fast, patronizing every eatery on Thayer and Wickenden and most of all, hating every weekend because the V-Dub wasn't open.

Can you imagine the cognitive dissonance involved in hating every weekend? I was a wreck. At first I attributed it to dismal, but sound, economics: after all, good ingredients are expensive, and when you have a whole university to feed, I might understand the compromised gastronomy. But from friends who work in the back-rooms of Brown Dining Services, at the catering arm, making pizza at the Gate and falafel at the Ivy Room, I heard the same thing: Brown is buying everything one needs in order to make good food. And turning it into Ratty food. As the old pilot manuals would say, the problem is probably sitting in the cockpit.

The assumptions under which we are operating are flawed. I think Brown University should not be in the business of making food at all. Real-life organizations often benefit from adopting the Unix philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well — and unless everyone has a huge change of heart and we become the largest open-air cafe in Providence, that one thing would be the business of educating students. The problem of turning land and sunlight into raw ingredients was outsourced long ago to other sectors of the economic system, and I think it's time to go all the way up the chain now.

Of course, Brown still needs an organization to represent its food needs. I suggest Dining Services evolve towards becoming an administrative and financial body that acts as a liaison between interested parties at Brown (administrators, finance people, and the student body) and private parties that are already in the food business. I envision some kind of buffer between us and the outside world, as well as a body that standardizes across campus eateries for quality and student-friendliness. Someone still needs to set up cards, manage accounts and all that boring stuff, and it might as well be Dining Services.

I think this would be a fantastic thing from the students' point of view. Dining Services already cannot compete with and is expensive compared to Thayer street and whereabouts. One meal credit (6.15 Flex Points) comes to either $6.36 or $7.65 out of your pocket for the two most cost-effective meal plans. It gets better: like many other educational institutions that have gone this way, it would make sense for Brown (rather, the large number of allied food customers that make up the Brown community) to use our financial clout and the dependence of local businesses on us to set up sweet deals.

The Ratty can, and should, still physically be the main dining hall on campus. One way to improve the system would be to auction catering licenses to a few companies, rather like a food court. Presumably, students would spend meal credits (or points or whatever other fake money system the accountants come up with for tax reasons) at individual stalls of their own choosing, so that we are back in that happy, happy land where economic success is tied to pleased and returning customers.

A pleasant side-effect of setting things up closer to how they are in the real world is that everyone pays for what and how much they eat. I don't know about you, but after tuition and housing, food is my biggest expense; if you go to school with a bunch of athletes and other people who eat way more than you do, you're subsidizing their upkeep. It's just not fair. It's also unhealthy, because you want to stuff as much food inside of you as you can while you're still inside, instead of making prudent, healthy, tasty choices. I'm sure everyone on a meal plan has done exactly that in the past.

It is unclear how this would affect the local economy — what if people stopped eating on Thayer because (gasp!) the Ratty was actually good? — but I do think it would be great for student employment, because we're cheap, live close by and have been working for BuDS for years. Brown could probably twist some arms and get minimum guaranteed employment numbers for student workers.

You know what else would be really great for student employment? Ditching that whole plan, ditching the current Dining Services bureaucracy and letting students run the whole thing. After all, if students can independently produce a daily publication such as The Herald, why can't we feed ourselves, too?

Kshitij Lauria '13 is off meal-plan, at least for now.




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