YSFP expansions stretch budget

From pretending to work for the Yale Sustainable Food Project to photocopying the Berkeley College sticker on their identification cards, some students are willing to do whatever it takes to get a meal in the Berkeley dining hall.

Because of the positive student response to the local and organic food options at Berkeley, the University has tripled the organic food selection available in all colleges since last year, resulting in at least 25 percent of meals offered being made from fresh produce. While YSFP employees said they hope the expansion will continue at a fiscally responsible pace, the administration said the University’s budget may not allow any further increase in organic food options.

YSFP members said they hope for the 12 residential college dining halls and the Commons dining hall to serve 100 percent organic or local food within the next 10 years, but Provost Andrew Hamilton said he questions the viability of this plan. After tripling of organic food from last year, which cost the University $1 million more than what it was already spending on the Berkeley test kitchen, the administration is reluctant to pay for another increase in organic food.

“Given the expected pressures on next year’s budget, we do not anticipate any further expansion in the immediate future,” Hamilton said.

In its first year, from 2003 to 2004, the project was solely funded by an $800,000 gift from a private donor. The next year, the majority of the $1.2 million budget came from Yale. This year, Yale provided the entire $1.4 million budget.

Ernst Huff, vice president for Student Financial and Administrative Services, said the baseline commitment from the administration will continue next year.

“Support from the University has continued and increased dependent on budget proposals and competition for various kinds of improvements,” Huff said.

Even if the funding remains constant, the project becomes more efficient every year, so it might still expand to an extent, Huff said. In conjunction with YSFP, Huff said he is working on preliminary budget proposals to be presented in the spring.

Dining Services Executive Director Don McQuarrie said the new organic and local food items have been well received by students this year, but he said he could not confirm that the end result will be 100 percent organic food.

“We want to continue to expand the project throughout Yale College,” McQuarrie said. “To date, we have taken on the challenges of expansion more on a year-to-year basis. We have enjoyed the University’s support, and we hope it continues at its current level.”

The University has supported YSFP and has increased funding every fiscal year, YSFP co-Director Melina Shannon-DiPietro said. She said she was surprised that the Provost’s Office does not anticipate further expansion. There will be great pressure on the University from students who support YSFP to reconsider this decision, she said, and the University will have to respond to that.

“To say we can have 100 percent sustainable food [in all colleges] is impossible right now, but we want that to happen,” she said.

Berkeley has come a long way since the 2003-2004 school year, when it first became a test kitchen for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. The dining hall, which serves only local and organic food, is now so popular that people literally beg to eat there, Berkeley desk attendant Christine Quinn said.

“I want to know how many transfers buy the Berkeley shirts sold by the dining hall to get in,” she said.

The cost for providing each meal at Berkeley has decreased from $2 more than at other residential colleges to only $1 more, and YSFP hopes to lower the cost to 75 cents per meal, Catherine Jones ’94, Berkeley’s executive chef, said. Although McQuarrie said Berkeley costs more to run than other college dining halls, he could not provide exact numbers for how much more Berkeley is subsidized by the University.

Such an ambitious project has not yet been attempted at other universities, YSFP Co-Director Josh Viertel said. But he added that for the University to continue leading the way, funding and expansion must keep pace.

“It seems foolish to stop now … on our way to full scale, which would be revolutionary,” YSFP employee Lucas Dreier ’04 said.

Dreier said the office is inundated with e-mails every week from universities including Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown and Stanford who look to Yale for guidance in organic dining services.

During the project’s first year, a handful of mainly organic side dishes were offered only in Berkeley. But around 30 items were offered last year in all residential colleges, followed by 89 this year.

To reduce support for Berkeley would be like shutting down the research and development branch of a growing corporation, Viertel said. He said that since the Yale administration does not have a master plan, it is up to YSFP to formulate a budget and long-term vision for sustainable food at Yale.

The YSFP co-directors said they will present a master plan to the Provost’s Office in early spring detailing the budget for several growth strategies, including another tripling of residential college offerings. The Berkeley dining hall will also set a framework menu for all colleges in late winter, with the full menu to be determined during the summer, when new items are tested.

Although Viertel and DiPietro did not say how many items will be offered next year, they are already working on several additions, including a cupcake recipe with chocolate buttermilk and an apple crisp with special flour from Champlain Valley that can be traced to small wheat growers.

In last year’s Dining Services survey, more than 75 percent of students asked for an increase in organic food at the residential dining halls. Berkeley resident Betsy Lee ’09 said she has not heard anyone in Berkeley say anything negative about her college’s organic food selection.

But Jones said student responses are only a part of the equation in considering expansion.

“We don’t want to [expand] so quickly or we will shoot ourselves in the foot,” she said. “It’s not like work at Berkeley is done.”

Charles Gariepy ’09 said he does not think organic food should be a priority for the University.

“Organic shmorganic,” he said. “As far as college food goes, Yale’s is tops anyway, so who needs it?”

While many students have complained about the general inequities in dining between the colleges, DiPietro said he has sensed no antagonism from the student body.

“We base decisions on what students want,” she said. “People have to reckon with the inequities that Berkeley is the test kitchen.”

But Dreier said he thinks it is unfair that Berkeley is the only college to serve 100 percent organic food and that all students should be able to enjoy that experience in their own colleges. Still, he said summer training for the organic expansion into the colleges has led to better food in general.

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