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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

H&D, tear down this servery system

By Anthony Lauriello     9/26/12 7:00pm


In 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally fell, East Germans rushed to the West to enjoy the fruits of a democratic society. These fruits - kiwis, pineapples, bananas and strawberries - had long been scarce in the communist economy of the East but were prevalent in the capitalist West. I ponder this anecdote often at Rice University, not when I pass by the piece of the Berlin Wall in front of the Baker Institute, but in the servery where I scrounge under the unwanted honeydew and cantaloupe for the hope of one red strawberry. 

Like East Germany, the Rice servery system is a textbook definition of a command economy. All students on campus must pay a $2,000 per semester tax to a governing body that then determines our food needs and provides them to us. This amounts to around $500 a month, not counting the lack of service for Saturday dinner. We have no choice in how we allot that $2,000. We pay when the food is delicious and when a caring Housing and Dining employee makes us a custom item. We pay when the food is disgusting and we feel forced to eat off campus. We pay when we are on school sponsored trips, when we just get a glass of water or when we sleep through breakfast. We pay no matter what. 

This lack of a market means both an imbalance of information and power. It distorts the relationship we should have with the servery. In the capitalist system, demand determines price and supply. The consumer choosing goods creates a conversation between those who provide the goods and those who use them. Consider a Sunday dinner leftover night with utterly unappetizing food. In our current command economy, it does not matter to the servery if students consume this dinner. In a capitalist system, though, the servery would lose money when no one chose to purchase the food. The servery's management would learn from its mistake, correct itself and then offer goods that the students actually want. 

The lack of a market also means there is an imbalance of power. In the command system, the servery can take away popular features such as paper plates and regular sized cups, and students are powerless to stop them. In the capitalist system, students could protest such moves by choosing to frequent off campus establishments. Furthermore, the servery staff treats us not like customers but thieves. Consuming their products hurts their financial position, as we have already paid at the beginning of the year. Therefore taking Cheerios to our rooms is considered larceny and too often the servery views students not as potential customers but potential criminals. 

H&D apologists will object and say that we have the choice to live off campus. This argument runs contrary to the basic concept of a democracy. Rice students live on campus so they can experience the unique culture of our university, not so they can pay for tofu squares in the salad bar that they never eat. Consenting to live on campus does not mean we forfeit the right to fight for a better school for us and future generations. Saying that we should simply move off campus if we disagree with H&D is akin to telling Americans to leave their country if they object to any policies from Washington. We cannot leave campus just because the system is broken. We must try to fix the system. 

And the fix is both simple and elegant. The school should offer meal plans based on Tetra points. An all-you-can-eat meal would cost a certain number of Tetra points, or students could elect to pay fewer Tetra points and simply get one item a la carte. Each student would purchase an amount of points that tailored to their needs. If a student overestimated the amount of points they would need, the points would roll over to next semester, and if a student underestimated, he or she could always purchase more. Furthermore, the students could frequent on-campus food vendors and student-run businesses with the points. Students on financial aid packages who receive room and board would receive a plan as part of their benefits, and no other students would be the wiser. If this makes a whole lot of sense to you, you are not alone. Most schools have similar systems that give students choices and allow for market-based systems for food that still help encourage communal dining. 

I know that I will probably never see this idea take fruition at Rice. The status quo is strong at this school, and the administration's responsiveness to students is at its weakest. Yet we as students must do something to solve the problem. We must challenge our elected leaders, especially the Student Association, to represent the growing discontent about an H&D management team that seems to care little for us. We must show our affection to the staff at H&D who take pride in their jobs and help us, while sending a strong message to their bosses. The odds may seem insurmountable, but while we may not succeed in replacing the nonfunctional and broken command system with a free and open market in the near term, I have faith. History and economics are on our side. 

Anthony Lauriello is a Wiess College senior and a Thresher backpage editor. 

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