Zenisek: A more transparent fast

This Thursday, Oct. 21, is the first Yale Hunger and Homelessness fast of the school year. Students can opt in on the Dining section of their SIS pages, which states that “If you choose to participate in the fast, you will be giving up one day’s worth of board meals, of which the related food expense will be donated to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP).” That sounds clear enough, but what exactly is this “related food expense”?

Last spring, I signed up for the fast and donated one day of meal swipes to the YHHAP program, which benefits projects related to homelessness in New Haven. However, the morning of the fast, like many others, I forgot; I handed over my ID for breakfast as I would on any other day. The worker at the dining hall, with whom I had chatted in the past, kindly reminded me about the fast and proceeded to bursar charge my meal.

That could have been the end of this story, but as I was leaving the register, the employee added, “You know, you really shouldn’t donate your swipes.”

This shocked me. After all, who could possibly be against helping those in need? I was told that when a student donates his or her meals for a day, much of the money is actually recouped by Yale Dining; only a portion ends up being donated. In other words, for each donation, Yale Dining actually comes out ahead, receiving money for meals that it will not serve.

A little math: Dividing the cost of a full meal plan, $2,600, by the number of days that the dining halls are open, around 218, reveals that each student pays about $12 a day to eat. Based upon the figures for the 2008 fast, during which 1,880 of us donated our swipes and raised $13,500, each student who participates donates about $7.18. Thus, almost $5 — about 40 percent — remains in the Yale Dining system, not benefiting YHHAP in any way. Is that acceptable? Certainly not in the nonprofit world: Charity Navigator, an organization that rates nonprofit organizations, gives an Administrative Expenses score of 0 out of 10 to any charity that spends over a third of its budget on anything other than philanthropic programs and services.

This column isn’t the first time someone has raised this issue. In 2002, a News guest columnist also did the math and questioned why, at the time, only about $5 of the $17 (approximately 30 percent) that students paid for meals every day ended up being donated. The then-coordinator of YHHAP blamed dining hall management company Aramark for giving an “inadequate” amount of money to the organization. Aramark has been gone for two years now, Yale Dining Services operates independently, and YHHAP receives a larger percentage of each student’s board meals. But is appropriating 40 percent, although less than 70 percent, of an intended donation acceptable? This is a question that still needs to be answered.

I do not wish to call into question to merit of the YHHAP Fast itself, to complain about having to purchase meals for a day, or to criticize the YHHAP program or board. I support the fast, which is a wonderful chance to give back to New Haven. I also understand that meals are not paid for individually and thus reimbursing just the full price of three meals for one student is probably impossible. That said, we need to make sure that the amount YHHAP receives is commensurate to that which Yale Dining spends on each student participating in the fast.

On the other end, YHHAP needs to be upfront about what they are able and unable to do. Perhaps the board feels that this would discourage people from donating; but it is only ethical to tell students the amount of their donation. This would give participants greater ownership over their gesture. A more complete statement on the opt-in site would be a start: “If you choose to participate in the fast, you will be giving up one day’s worth of board meals, of which approximately $7.00 in food expenses will be donated to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP).” That way, students would be able to make a completely informed decision about whether to participate. It’s only honest.

Sergio Zenisek is a senior in Berkeley College and a staff photographer for the News.


  • Sam

    Good catch. Unfortunately, your denominator is wrong. Yale meals plans cost 2,600 dollars [per semester][1], not per year. Consequently, the cost per day of dining is 2600/109 = 23.85/day. Calling that 24 dollars, we get that Yale is holding on to a remarkable **71%** of the cost of each day of dining, or just a hair worse than it was under Aramark. In other words, you’re getting screwed.

    While we’re at it, let’s run the numbers for someone on the 14 meal plan. If you’re on the 14 meal plan, you pay $2600 and get $150 to spend at Durfees. Let’s call $150 at Durfees $100 in the real world, which brings the cost of the 14 meal plan to $2500. Let’s also say that over the course of the semester, you use all 14 of your meals every week to get 7 lunches and 7 dinners (since those are the most expensive meals) but you miss a total of 4 days worth of dining. This means that you’re paying an average of about $23.85 a day for lunch and dinner. If you were to buy all of these meals at guest rates, you would be paying $10.25 + $13.25 = $23.50/day for lunch and dinner. **In other words, the 14 meal plan costs more than just bursaring 2 meals a day every day of the semester.** Aren’t the union contracts that Yale has with its dining workers amazing? Won’t it be awesome to have Yale security unionized too?

    [1]: http://www.yale.edu/dining/options/mealplan.html

  • YaleMomsHusband

    I thought Yale *owned* the people who work in its dining halls. You mean Cupcake is being served by Free People of Color?

  • jlb2012

    A clarification:

    The opt-in line on the SIS sign-up page is accurate. By giving a day’s worth of meal swipes, Yale students are donating the food expense of their meal, which is a little more than $7. All of those donations go directly to the family shelters in New Haven. The remaining money is not donated because it covers the cost of paying the dining hall staff for the day’s work. In this way, the YHHAP FAST donates as much as possible from contributed meal swipes without having a negative effect on the dining hall staff.

    YHHAP recognizes that there is some inefficiency in the FAST fundraising model, but on the whole it is a very successful model that raises around $10,000 for homeless service providers every semester. We wouldn’t come close to having that amount of impact if we asked everyone for a direct donation.

    Please know that it is YHHAP’s full intention to be as open and honest about our events as possible. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to talk to us: joseph.breen@yale.edu or gabriel.zucker@yale.edu.

    I hope that you sign-up and enjoy the FAST tomorrow with full knowledge of the significant amount of help you are providing the homeless community.

    – Joseph Breen, Co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project.

  • SY10

    It seems to me that, even based on Joseph Breen’s comment, it would make far more sense for a student not to sign up for the fast, but rather donate $7 (or even a few more) to YHHAP directly. I remember being frustrated as a student that, while being pestered to sign up for the fast, there was easy way to simply donate the equivalent amount of money. It’s possible to both save money for students (replacing all meals for a day costs the average student more than $7) and give more money to YHHAP by donating directly. Perhaps YHHAP should consider making that option a little easier.

  • RexMottram08


    Not nearly as funny as the original.

  • jfriedmann

    First, on the issue of transparency:
    This seems a strange claim, considering that neither the writer nor the editor of this article deemed it worthwhile to contact YHHAP to seek clarification on this issue. If they had, we would have pointed them to our website and the SIS sign up page, which both read “You will be giving up one day’s worth of board meals, of which the related food expense will be donated to YHHAP.” In addition, those who table outside dining halls are informed of the percentages and often remind potential participants of the exact numerical significance of their donation ($7-10, depending on your dining plan). We in no way seek to misinform students for fear of discouraging them from donating.

    At the risk of being repetitive, the reference to Charity Navigator is absolutely irrelevant. Yale Dining is not a nonprofit, which renders YHHAP extremely lucky to have the opportunity to collect money from meal swipes once a semester. Yale Dining cannot be expected to donate the full $24 because the majority of this price covers the fixed costs that must be paid regardless of how many students are dining on a specific day. These are the labor costs associated with keeping the dining halls open. Demands for a higher percentage of the would effectively reduce the salaries of dining hall workers.

    Part of what makes the Fast such a successful fundraiser is that it requires no direct donation. Its effectiveness lies in the ease with which one can press a button on SIS – to echo Joe, we wouldn’t come close to the $12,000 we raised last Spring if we petitioned cash from students. In addition, the act of donating one’s meal swipes as a community turns this fundraiser into an Event with a Purpose and Significance, things that would be lost otherwise. However, you are accurate in that donating directly is a more efficient means to give, and to that end, each of our tables outside dining halls is equipped to accept cash donations. An online donation system could be implemented in the future.

    — Jennifer Friedmann, MC ’13, PR Coordinator for YHHAP

  • yalie13

    Jennifer, while you make an excellent point, don’t you think YHHAP should be reformed a little bit? I mean, by donating my meal swipes today, I donated $7, but ended up spending over $20 on meals that I otherwise would have spent at the dining hall. I could have just eaten at the dining halls and donated that $20 for the same cost.

    Nevertheless, it is surely a psychological thing, so maybe YHHAP fasts should come with the option for students to be able to bursar or point charge the $7 for donation. That way, they can choose whether they want to do the fast, or just donate the money directly. You may even get more donators that way because its a far less costly and efficient option when you add it up.