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At MIT’s ‘Banana Lounge,’ it’s not just the free food that’s a-peeling

Simply put, it’s a small space with lots and lots of free bananas.

Megan Lim organized the day's banana delivery while a student rested in the MIT Banana Lounge, a space on campus offering bananas free for the taking.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE, IN A ROOM FULL OF BANANAS — There’s a running joke here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that no college campus boasts higher potassium levels.

That nutritional claim can be traced to a small space on the first floor of the Compton Laboratories building, which features boxes filled to the brim with bananas that are free for the taking.

It’s called the “Banana Lounge,” and from its conception a few years back to the data-driven logistics that help it run 24/7, it’s quintessential MIT, part of its inventive yet practical culture.

“People kind of just relax here, and sometimes people peace out or do their problem sets homework here,” said Zoe Sheill, one of dozens of students who help run the lounge. “It’s a place that’s totally for students.”


Since it opened in 2018, the lounge, dubbed “a little happy place in the heart of campus,” has become increasingly popular. But it gained wider attention this month after Iain Cheeseman, a biology professor, visited the “fantastical room” filled with bananas — and banana-related artwork — and shared his insights on Twitter.

As Cheeseman peeled back the layers of the operation, he discovered that the lounge is much more than just a pit stop with a catchy name — it’s a lively place that brings students together at all hours, offers them a spot to unwind on couches and bean bag chairs, and serves as a hub of innovation, where volunteers collect a bonanza of banana-related data and address complex issues like food insecurity and waste reduction.

“It’s a place [and] mission with a real impact,” wrote Cheeseman, who learned about the lounge from a student in his lab. “This story . . . speaks volumes for what it means to be part of MIT. A positive, creative, student-led initiative that makes a real difference.”


Students took advantage of the free bananas at the MIT Banana Lounge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The lounge, which features floor-to-ceiling-windows, showcases colorful student murals, and offers free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, was the brainchild of Malte Ahrens, a student studying mathematical economics, and a few of his classmates.

In 2015, the students batted around the idea of creating a welcoming, playful space for their peers to hang out, rest, or form relationships. Providing a quick snack would be a big draw, they realized, and helpful for students who didn’t have time for a meal between classes or to pick up fresh food.

Three years later, after asking themselves how they could help students “feel that magic that makes them feel like they can do anything,” they launched a 10-day pilot project with bananas as the centerpiece.

Ahrens said they chose the fruit because of its relatively low cost, transportability, and high nutritional value — and simply because bananas lend themselves to good Internet content.

“Bananas are famously meme-able,” said Ahrens, a senior who is currently on leave.

The pilot program, initially paid for by the student government, was a success, so the organizers lobbied to keep it going with a bit of help from the administration. Today, the bananas and refreshments are funded by donor Brad Feld, a 1987 MIT graduate and venture capitalist.

In the beginning, Ahrens and his friends would run out early in the morning to Yell-O-Glow, a fruit supplier in Chelsea, to buy bananas in bulk, which made getting back to campus a bit trickier.


“We would just wake up before the sun, grab some running gear, jog out, pick up the bananas, call an Uber, and hope the Uber drivers would be cool with us taking 800 pounds of bananas in the back of their car,” he said. “Then we would do the same thing again.”

They also experimented with Amazon Fresh deliveries, relied on friends, and hired delivery drivers. But these days, the student organizers and volunteers who oversee the lounge have managed to streamline the supply process.

Sabrina Liu stacked boxes of bananas that were destined for the Banana Lounge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Having developed a rapport with Yell-O-Glow’s owners, students have large banana shipments delivered three times per week to meet demand.

Near a loading dock behind MIT’s Stata Center on a recent Wednesday morning, three students carefully stacked dozens of boxes of bananas from a truck onto metal carts. They fist-bumped the driver, wheeled the bananas up a ramp, and entered the lounge, where even at 8 a.m. a student was napping.

The day’s shipment — on National Banana Day, no less — marked a milestone: more than 500,000 bananas delivered to the lounge since it got its start.

As they organized the boxes in a nook, students in running gear or carrying laptops trickled in. One by one, they inspected the banana offerings, grabbed what they needed, and took off to their next destination or settled in to work or socialize.

“It’s nice. If I forget breakfast or something, I can always come here,” said Kat Jander, 19, after taking a banana. “The lounge itself — aside from the bananas — there’s a lot of space.”


Nate Woodward, 20, had already eaten but swung by “for more breakfast.”

“A lot of people’s morning routine is they come here,” Woodward said as he prepared for a test at an open table, free banana by his side. “Some people eat mostly bananas throughout the day.”

Megan Lim input data regarding the banana deliveries.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

While at first glance it may look like a simple concept — a lounge with free bananas! — there’s a lot of hard work and dedication behind the scenes.

In classic MIT fashion, every aspect of the lounge is quantified as a means to maximize quality and efficiency. Students track the bananas’ delivery dates, country of origin, quality, ripeness, color, and how the space is used. They also have model estimates about student visits (about 250,000 per semester), and overall banana consumption (they expect to serve around 315,000 bananas this academic year).

“We love documentation,” said Megan Lim, the team’s logistics lead. “We think it’s really useful for sustainability purposes.”

The information from the comprehensive “Banana Log” guides the operation, and as a result almost no banana goes uneaten: the group has a waste rate of just 0.2 percent, she said. Leftovers are frozen for later or used to make banana bread, which students quickly scarf down. Even the boxes the bananas come in are collected and donated to outside organizations.

But precise calculations aside, the Banana Lounge is as much about intangibles as it is a place to nap, collaborate, and have a restorative snack.


“This is our community and we really care about it and we want to make a difference,” Ahrens said. “We see our school as more than just a place to learn.”

Alice Lin grabbed a free banana.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.