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A Look into BC Dining: Evolution Throughout BC’s History

This is the third installment in a three-part series about BC Dining.

History of BC Dining

Student outcry to changes within Boston College Dining is far from a new phenomenon. Rather, it spans several decades.

In 1977, BC Dining made the decision to require a pay as you go–meal plan system, instead of giving students the option of a 20 meals per week swipe-based system. According to a Heights article from that year, John Callahan, then-director of BC Dining Services (BCDS), said the administration instructed all departments to financially break even, which was a large factor in the switch.

“BCDS decided to cut nonessential expenses by getting rid of the computers, used for the twenty meal plan,” the article reads. “BC rents these computers at $10,000 per year. Callahan also cited the extra man hours involved in running the two meal plans as uneconomical.”

This switch frustrated some students, with many saying the pay-as-you-go system did not give students enough dining dollars to eat three meals a day. 

One student noted that every day that year, he could only afford to buy yogurt and dinner, which he said was unfair.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you’re going to starve,” he said in the article.

In 2007, BC Dining slightly adjusted its structure by adding a “flex plan,” which accommodated upperclassmen who lived in dorms or apartments with kitchens, allowing them to purchase a reduced version of the main meal plan.

Students have also consistently criticized BC Dining’s prices. In 1975, Callahan said despite the increases in food prices, the quality of BC Dining had remained the same. In 1987, students complained of “outrageous” prices at the BC grocery store, and in 2003, BC Dining attributed higher prices to student theft.

COVID-19 as a Turning Point

One student, who was granted anonymity by The Heights, started working at BC Dining their freshman year. Though they said it was not a glamorous job, there was an overall positive work environment—at least up until their sophomore year, when COVID-19 hit and there was a noticeable shift, they said. 

“There was a big shift in leadership, and a lot of the managers changed over,” the student said. “There were a lot of changes, and it ended up being, not miserable, but messy.”

The student worker said when they switched to working at Lower Live, conditions improved. But by the end of their sophomore year, all BC Dining workers were exhausted, they said.

“Just trying to keep up with everything that was demanded of us, like the COVID regulations,” the worker said. “A lot of managers had quit that year or the year before. There was also always a lack of communication, because we never knew when certain food was going to get here. Yeah, it was just frustrating.”

Responding to a question about the impact of COVID-19, Director of BC Dining Beth Emery said BC Dining has experienced unprecedented staffing shortages in the past two years, which impacted its operating hours and overall service. 

BC Dining strives to minimize the impacts of supply chain and staffing shortages on students’ dining experiences, Emery said.

“We have experienced supply chain issues since the pandemic and managed through a difficult union strike of the drivers of Sysco, our major supplier this semester,” Emery wrote in an email. “We’ve also seen a significant increase in food and paper costs rising over 23% year over year.”

Declining Balance vs. All You Can Eat

When BC Dining surveyed students in the past, Emery said over 70 percent replied they preferred the current declining balance–meal plan model as opposed to an “all you care to eat” model—or a swipe model. 

“Our current model is more equitable since students who eat less do not subsidize students who eat more, and is more similar to what students will experience when they graduate,” Emery said in an email to The Heights. “In addition, students have the option to take food-to-go, use the dining hall to socialize and can have an unlimited number of guests.”

BC’s annual cost for its base mandatory meal plan is less than most schools in the Boston area. BC’s annual meal cost plan is $6,000, while Boston University’s plan is $6,150 and Harvard University’s is $7,446.

The majority of these Boston-area universities, however, use a traditional “all you can eat” meal plan model. At these universities, including Harvard, BU, and Northeastern University, when students “swipe” into the dining hall, they can take as much food as they like. But at BC, students pay individually for each meal, snack, or drink they buy.

The anonymous student worker said while the dollar system works for her, it proves difficult for others who have different eating habits and schedules. 

“I eat three times a day and I don’t eat that much, so it doesn’t create an issue for me,” they said. “But I know so many kids who eat more and only eat twice a day or whatever their habits are, where a swipe system would save them.”

Prices and Portions

BC Dining’s main problem is not its lack of food variety, according to Sawyer Maloney, but rather students are not able to eat enough food without running out of meal plan money.

“It’s pretty hard,” Maloney, a member of BC’s club rowing team and MCAS ’25, said. “Not that there aren’t enough options, but that they don’t fit well within the budget of the dining plan. So I can definitely eat enough, but I can only do that for so long.”

Ned Vasquez, also a member of BC’s club rowing team and CSOM ’24, said small portion sizes can present challenges for people who need to eat a lot. 

“I know that they’re running a business and they have to make ends meet in terms of the finances,” Vasquez said. “I would often … get something that cost like $12 or $13, which is fine, but then the portion sizes would be too small and I would have to go back and find some snacks or like just get another entire meal.”

According to Emery, BC Dining has not reduced its portion sizes, with the exception of the portion of protein on top of the Grilling Grain bowls.

The anonymous BC Dining worker, however, said after the beginning of their sophomore year, there was a larger emphasis on controlling portion sizes.

“There was definitely the idea that I could get into trouble if I over-served this person,” the student said. “My manager might come up to me and be like ‘you need to control the way you’re doing that.’ It is kinda ridiculous because I know we’re overcharging for this food, so I feel like I owe the kids an extra scoop of rice.”

Kate Serpe, MCAS ’25, said she has become desensitized to the prices at BC Dining and barely notices the price of food until after she orders. 

“I recently got the GetMobile app so I can see how much everything costs,” she said. “I’ll look, and I’m like that burger and fries that I just bought was $20, which is crazy because you go to a restaurant, [and] it won’t be that expensive and it’ll be better quality.”

In a statement to The Heights, Emery said BC Dining determines its prices by considering labor and food costs for each item, engaging in “competitive price benchmarking” with quick service restaurants in the area including El Pelón Taquería, Cava, Flatbreads, among others.

Kristen Bayreuther, MCAS ’23, said BC Dining’s food pricing and portions are “ridiculous.” 

“One of the good things I really, really like at BC Dining are the perogies,” she said. “[But] they give you like four for $10 to $12. … I could go to El Pelón and eat cheaper every single day and eat better portioned meals.” 

BC Dining has historically provided extensive reasoning for its high prices. In the past, it has often cited the goal of breaking even, maintaining facilities, providing high-quality food, and paying workers a livable wage as factors in their pricing. 

“I don’t have to make money, but I have to break even,” said Helen Wechsler in 2012, then-head of BC Dining Services. “If I don’t, I become a burden to the University, and your tuition is supposed to go to your education, not the food.”

The BC Dining worker concluded that the quality of BC’s food is by and large comparable to an Applebees, not quite fast food but also not aligning with the current high prices.

“The preparation was fairly good,” they said. “It definitely wasn’t fast food, and the chefs are good at their jobs and they know what they’re doing, but the quality does not match up to the prices.”

Sofia Laboy contributed to reporting.

November 18, 2022
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