There exist two basic models for student dining. The first is a model employed commonly by state schools, where private vendors compete for spaces rented out by the university, and students use cash or a cash equivalent to purchase food. The second model is often found at private institutions, where the university operates a number of large dining halls. These dining halls are typically buffet-style eateries and use a swipe system.
The state school model relies on a competitive market to deliver food for the best value available. The private school model can cost students and schools more money—because they are not always strong market pressures—but this model offers an enriching communal experience that a market-based model typically does not. A dining system that allows students to sit down to eat, and thereby encourage them to have substantive conversations, creates an extremely valuable student experience.
We think that dining systems that require students to enroll in a dining plan can be justified, but only when campus dining fosters meaningful communal ties and out-of-class discussions. The Marketplace succeeds by this metric. However, the scattered collection of restaurants on West Campus fosters a ‘grab-and-go’ eating culture. The Penn Pavilion, with its paper plates and variable food quality, has not yet become a buzzing hub of student discussion. Given this, it is not clear that students should be required to purchase food points to eat at non-Marketplace venues. We think, therefore, that FLEX and food points should be consolidated until the new West Union opens.
There are architectural limitations on Duke’s campus that make transitioning to a full dining-hall model impossible. The West Union developments offer an opportunity to rethink our campus dining system though.
When the West Union reopens, the upper-class dining system should be revamped. It should require students to purchase a moderate number of food points redeemable only at the West Union. Under this system, Duke could encourage communal dining experiences without overly restricting students’ choices. At other on-campus restaurants, like those in the Bryan Center, students would be able to pay with FLEX, cash, debit and credit cards.
Although it is not unique to Duke, failing to refund students for unused food points at the end of the academic year is unfair and hurts low-income students, in particular. Our model would make surplus food points much rarer. Although we recognize that Duke has a serious dining deficit, we think that the loss of this revenue source is acceptable, considering how much value an established, central dining location on West Campus will add to campus.
Given the relative ease of eating on campus, we do not expect that the elimination of food points for non-West Union eateries would lead to a mass exodus of students to off-campus venues. However, the University would need to adjust financial aid to give recipients the cash or FLEX equivalent of the current meal plan allotment.
In many ways, food points have become vestiges of an older dining system. As construction on the new West Union proceeds, we should continue to think about how to tailor meal plans to Duke’s unique dining culture.
The opinions in the daily editorial are formulated by 13 voting members of the board, who, as an independent group, are explicitly prohibited from writing or editing for other daily or weekly sections. Meet the Editorial Board.