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Tufts Dining Services should cut prices when it cuts services

Published: Monday, February 27, 2012

Updated: Monday, February 27, 2012 07:02

Dining trays. Plastic bags. Water bottles. Freshmen at Tufts may not be familiar with seeing these items on Walnut Hill, but they were once ubiquitous. They provided a useful service enjoyed by students, but they also cost money, were of questionable utility and produced waste. Over the course of many years, each has been removed from normal use following a simple pattern. First, a group of students touts the benefits of removing said item, citing its wastefulness and high cost. Second, the university reacts favorably and commends the students. Third, said item is removed and the price of a meal stays the same or rises. These are the stories:

In the 2009−2010 school year, and in every year before, there had been trays in the dining halls to allow students to hold more than two items at once. In the spring of 2010, the ExCollege had a class called "Environmental Action: Shifting from Saying to Doing." For their for−credit project, some students proposed removing trays from the Carmichael and Dewick−MacPhie dining halls. They worked with Tufts University Dining Services (TUDS) to conduct a "trial period" in which trays would be removed from the dining hall. During this trial period, the class would analyze energy use and food waste, and students would be permitted to leave their comments. Though members of the class asked for the support of the TCU Senate, the Senate instead protested by passing a resolution stating "The TCU Senate supports exploring alternatives to trayless dining" in a 14−13 vote. (Full disclosure: I was a member of Senate who supported this resolution.)

The results of the trial period were predictable. Electricity use and food waste went marginally down, but student comments were overwhelmingly against the removal of trays. However, the ultimate outcome of the "trial period" was never in doubt: Patti Klos, director of dining and business services, was featured in FoodService Director magazine as "[knowing] she had to wait for the right time to attempt creating behavioral changes for her students." Tufts Dining Services and the student group ran a public relations campaign to emphasize how many resources trayless dining had saved, and Dining Services permanently removed trays from dining halls starting in the 2010−2011 academic year. In a Sep. 29, 2010 Daily article entitled "Despite price hikes, meal plans enroll high numbers," Patti Klos estimated that the removal of trays could save about $52,000 per year in electricity use and food waste, not even including the cost of the trays themselves. Despite the purported savings, the price of nearly every meal plan went up from spring 2011 to fall 2011. I emailed Patti Klos about this issue. Klos never returned the email.

In the 2010−2011 school year, and in every year before, there had been plastic bags in Hodgdon Good−to−Go, a campus eatery where students can pay with their meal plan. In spring 2011, students dealt with this issue in a class hosted by the English department called "Environmental Justice and US Literature." One of their projects was to choose an environmental cause and advocate for it. They chose the removal of plastic bags in Hodgdon. To accomplish this goal, the class staked out the Tisch Library Steps, Carmichael and Dewick−MacPhie for a few hours on an April afternoon, standing with petitions to ban plastic bags. They asked every passerby for their signature, and ended the day with a few hundred. From my point of view, any discussion of the matter was fruitless — the students were set on removing plastic bags from Hodgdon, and they were receiving class credit for it.

Though one member of the class had told the Daily that they were working to pass a resolution through the TCU Senate, it was ultimately not necessary. Dining Services saw their petition, and Hodgdon no longer offers plastic bags. One would assume that removing plastic bags would remove a significant expense from a Tufts meal plan. But, as with the previous year, prices for students rose.

Next, water bottles. For years, various activists have been trying to remove bottled water from Tufts. Though bottled water is of roughly equal quality to tap water, and plastic bottles are often improperly disposed, it was very popular among Hodgdon−goers, and with many Americans nationwide. Last semester, Dining Services listened to the activists. Aside from a few posters around campus, there was very little public relations effort that went into the move; in Patti Klos's judgment, "We had gone trayless last year and it seemed that students were more open to behavioral changes." Hodgdon now provides one fewer item, but the cost remains the same.

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