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Sunday, April 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

We need to diversify Rice’s foodscape

By Megan McDonald     3/26/24 10:59pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

I’m hungry.  Oh wait…

…the serveries are closed.

…no third parties are open.

…I forgot to pack lunch today.

…pasta is the only vegetarian option, again.

…I don’t want water chicken three days in a row.

…I ran out of Tetra.

…Rice Village is too far and too expensive.

…the shopping shuttle only operates on Saturdays.

…going off campus will take too long.

…getting Chaus isn’t feasible between classes.

Rice students have lots to say about access to food while on and around campus.  Rice’s unique foodscape lives and breathes the school’s motto of unconventional wisdom by helping accommodate a diverse group of students.  But to a certain extent, it could benefit from a taste of conventional wisdom.  Implementing other universities’ foodscape features at Rice would benefit our students.

I began researching Rice’s foodscape last semester in Research Methods (SOCI 381) with Dr. Considine.  This semester I continued the research by comparing Rice’s foodscape to those of other Texas universities.  I traveled to Texas Christian University, Texas A&M University - College Station, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas Southern University to understand student experiences and to tour their foodscapes.

When I started the fieldwork, I quickly realized the extent of Rice administration’s control over our university’s foodscape.  Though not widely perceived among the student body, Rice is situated completely in a low-access food desert (as designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service).  Therefore, Rice serveries profit by being the key provider of food to students on campus.

Being the only player in the market, Rice is a price setter. The university requires all on campus students to purchase Meal Plan A which has a weekly meal plan price that is 21% higher than the national average. Students are not only forced to pay high prices by market economics, but also by pure university policy. Rice’s monopoly on the foodscape allows them to charge high prices across campus.

Rice’s use of Tetra can be compared to mining companies perpetuating cycles of poverty. Fixing prices and costs in an old mining town mirrors artificial subsidization of student-run businesses at Rice. While Tetra has its perks, it is not meeting its full potential. Most campuses I visited had a form of Tetra that could be used at local businesses off campus; even meal swipes could be used at on campus third-party providers. By only artificially subsidizing on campus food options, the university disincentivizes students from venturing out of the Rice foodscape, keeping profits within the hedges.

The crux of the matter lies in the degree of centralized power each university administration possesses in its foodscape. At the universities I visited, students exercised some freedom in their on campus food choices between university sponsored and third party providers. At Rice, university-sponsored and third-party providers are one and the same. The administration influences operations and policies at serveries and third parties alike. Students merely have the illusion of choice.

On top of that, no third party chains operate at Rice, which makes serveries the only option. It appears that the sole purpose of these top-down policies is to protect Rice’s precious serveries. Rice invested too much money for them to fail, so the administration fixed the market to ensure their own success.

Rice must adapt to support students, but adapt in what way? Take a bite from the other universities’ foodscapes by welcoming independent third-party operators on campus, a strategy that Rice students support. In an impromptu MEOS 404 focus group, of 14 Rice students tasked with creating an additional food provider at Rice, an overwhelming majority (approximately 90%) favored a third party chain over another servery.

Rice students have spoken. Diversify the foodscape.

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