The Original Sin of Stanford Dining

The Original Sin of Stanford Dining

“A University administrator said McDonald's can charge lower prices than University food service because, in part, ‘the quality of food is lower at McDonald's,’” an unsigned Daily editorial stated in 1984. “That's not true. And anybody who has eaten at both the Golden Arches and Stern Hall can tell you that.” Though the nutrition of the school’s dining halls has improved since the days of John Belushi’s “I’m a zit” scene in Animal House, students and faculty remain at the mercy of a food service often decried as mediocre and expensive.

As one student summarized last year in a Daily article, the meal plan is “designed to edge people out of breakfast, [make students] eat [dinner] absurdly early” and to force them to satiate hunger at Late Night, giving even more money to the University. Meal plans run students $6,169 per year; meanwhile, meal plans at nearby Santa Clara University cost 13.5 percent less, only $5,436 per year.

Stanford is in dire need of the forces of competition in its food supply to spur innovation and lower costs. How? Throw out the mandate for students living on campus to buy meal plans. Remove the outmoded limitations on food providers, like the prohibition of food trucks. Shut down Stanford Dining, the food service arm of Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE), and simply lease dining hall space to third party vendors. Just as unpopular restaurants in Tresidder Union are shuttered, delinquent leases could be rolled over to new vendors. Streamline the provision of new leases and lower their rates. Wonder why an espresso is $2.50 at Coupa, while Peets, just off campus, charges $2.20? Look to the University’s bludgeoning of its current tenants with huge rents.

For students on financial aid, the University could provide weekly cash allowances for food, as is the practice at some of the Bing Overseas Programs. If paternalistic administrators fear that school money would be used for Natural Light, just load students’ IDs with the allowance and limit the debit-card function to approved locations. In this framework, vendors would be forced to compete with one and other, new innovative vendors could enter the market, and the result for students and faculty would be a better selection of higher quality food at lower prices.

The requirement to purchase a meal plan is Stanford Dining’s original sin because it makes the dining halls immune from market forces of competition. CoHo cannot charge $20 for a cup of coffee because every caffeine addict would then get their fix at Coupa. Competition, and often disruptive competition, is typically the main driver of low prices and innovation in the supply of food. That a measly editorial must remind students of the powers of disruption in the heart of Silicon Valley is deeply dismaying. Is innovation impossible in an industry as banal and mature as food services? Of course not. What about Whole Foods! Postmates! Or the new campus delivery service by Kiwi robots!

Whenever students have decried the school's mandated meal plan over the decades and suggested injecting a modicum of choice into students' food options, the school has maintained that eating meals with fellow students is a major component of so-called "residential education." The R&DE website declares "meals play a key role in this mission of community building, leading, and learning." But how can the meal plan mandate build a dorm community if students are not restricted to the dining hall in their dorm and can eat in any Stanford dining hall? Plus, buying the school's line means forgetting that those halls are typically as segregated as cliques at a high school cafeteria in an '80s movie. If residential education is really such a crucial part of the Stanford experience, surely it should not come at the price of a decent meal, and can happen in the 23 hours of the day when students are not eating.

A second common defense of the meal plan was put forward in a Daily survey last year: the mandated meal plan “makes students of all economic backgrounds feel more welcomed.” Yet the far superior food available in Row houses can only be guaranteed for (1) the socially talented via staff positions and preassignment or for (2) those in Greek houses, who tend to be more affluent. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds really get a raw deal, since rich kids escape to places like Mayfield Bakery, the Creamery, and even Nobu. So the state of school food not only fails to unite but is also blatantly inequitable.

Stanford’s dietary options have not always been so sparse and statist. Until the end of the University's third decade of existence, students had the option of dining in school-run or privately operated establishments. When it first opened its doors, the University could house less than half the student body and many students lived and ate in town. Palo Alto restaurants, several grocers, a butcher, and even Royal Cafeteria in San Jose advertised directly to students. On campus, Union Cafe opened in 1916 in a space leased by restaurateur Frank Tagawa who brought professional management and invested nearly $46,000, adjusted for inflation, in cutting-edge equipment. His eatery was advertised for years with the tagline “save time by eating on campus,” giving further credence to the belief that restaurants on University Avenue once competed with school-run dining halls. The fiercest competitor to the school’s food service was likely the on-campus Stanford Inn which boasted three dining rooms, a capacity of 140, and served multiple seating of each meal, all à la carte. Since the Inn had to compete for customers, it offered food service for $516 per month, adjusted for inflation. The contemporary monthly rate for a meal plan is about $350 more.

How did this heyday of competition die? As part of a broader push initiated by President Ray Wilbur to house and feed students “in suitable buildings owned and controlled by the University.” In the early 1920s, the school reconstructed the Encina dining hall, built the Branner dining hall, and added a new dining wing to Old Union. The university also canceled leases to Tagawa, a Japanese-American, for The Inn and Union Cafe, an action which seems to have been driven by a degree of racial animus. In any event, the school’s new dining halls quickly gained a poor reputation, which one Daily writer quipped started the day Encina opened. The situation was even worse at Branner, where only 52 men purchased meal plans though 100 were required for the hall to break even. Similarly, the Union dining halls, keeping prices below cost to attract students, consistently lost money.

To complicate matters, the University faced a precarious financial situation. It had instituted a tuition in 1920 for the first time in its history, after nearly exhausting its founding endowment from the Stanfords. Loans from alumni to construct dining halls remained outstanding. In response, beginning in the fall of 1925, the University required that students eat in the dining hall associated with their dormitory. And so the ancestor to the meal plan mandate was born.

As the school’s food service evolved over the decades to its modern iteration, the requirement to purchase a meal plan persisted, zombie-like, and became further centralized, with absurd defenses by administrators. The University even prevented the extensive integration of women into eating clubs in the 1960s by claiming such a shift would bankrupt the school’s dining halls.

An alternative solution could be a point system, similar to the Santa Clara meal plan. Under such a system, students would still be required to purchase a meal plan, but would be issued meal plan points which could be used on an à la carte or all-you-can-eat basis — essentially a meal plan consisting of all meal plan dollars and no predetermined number of meals per week. Giving students a small dose of choice and pitting respective R&DE locations against one and other would be an improvement over the current anti-competitive model, but also a temporary one.

In the 1980s, Stanford tried a similar strategy, but it quickly became a bureaucratic mess. The service began charging exorbitant prices for simple goods like bottled drinks to cover bloated operational costs. With 70 years of no competition, and the effective prohibition of new restaurants by the meal plan mandate, costs shot up at Stanford Dining, which attempted to subsidize its expenses by overpricing goods which involved zero labor costs, like bottles of Snapple. Students stopped buying these goods. Subsequently, à la carte meal plans and the point system were eliminated altogether, constraining competition further. Stanford food was left where it was before the point system, as it would likely return if a point system were reintroduced.

Luckily, Stanford today is not the Stanford of the 1920s. Financial troubles are no longer a concern for the University and the school already leases space to 27 third-party vendors. True, “food is the easiest thing on which to vent one’s wrath,” as one Daily writer admonished students in 1923. But Stanford has given students a food service more expensive than other local schools and of such a quality that many would prefer to eat at CoHo.

Under the aforementioned proposals, Stanford’s food environment would in fact be more equitable, since all students would have access to quality meals regardless of socioeconomic background or social skill. Currently 12 administrators run R&DE, along with numerous assistants. If administrators object to turning the school’s food service into a landlord, it is likely because they know leasing space to third party vendors, besides being better for everyone else, could be done by a single person, without the bureaucratic bloat of the current system.

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