As administrators begin mulling proposals for next year’s budget this week, they said student activists hoping for a vast expansion of the Yale Sustainable Food Project are likely to be disappointed given current pressures on the budget.
Late last week, dining officials presented administrators with a set of varying proposals to expand YSFP funding beyond its current $1.25 million supplement, said Ernst Huff, associate vice president for student financial and administrative services. As the planning process began, campus groups released survey results showing that about 80 percent of students would eat in dining halls more often if they featured an all-sustainable menu. But officials said they remain skeptical that the student effort will lead to a major expansion, though the final budget decision is weeks away.
The administration has already committed to providing at least the same amount of funding to the YSFP as it did last year, Huff said. Even if the there is no increase this year, he said, improved efficiency over the last year will allow for some expansion of the project.
“The University is still in a situation where there are many demands on limited resources, and this is just one area,” Huff said. “We’re confident that we can build a budget based on lower food costs, and as a result of that alone you could grow it to a certain degree.”
The Dining Services proposals detail the costs for various levels of project growth, Huff said. Though he declined to comment on the exact figures, Huff said the submissions differed from last year’s in that more of the proposed funding would go toward increasing sustainable entrees and side items, instead of sustainable “par” products such as dairy products that do not require any additional staff training.
“For the past couple of years we’ve had Fair Trade Coffee and organic milk, but at some point it just becomes a given, and it doesn’t have the impact of having a nice entree or well-prepared meal,” he said.
This year’s proposals would not decrease the current number of “par” offerings, Huff said.
Huff said the case for expanding YSFP offerings received a boost from a recent student campaign to expand the project. During the past few weeks, the campus group Food from the Earth collected approximately 2,400 signatures in support of an all-sustainable menu and polled about 500 students on YaleStation regarding their dining preferences.
Respondents said their college experience would be more fulfilling if all dining halls featured a completely sustainable menu like that of Berkeley College. Some cited the program’s environmental friendliness, but most focused on food quality.
“This would have an enormous impact on my experience at Yale,” one respondent wrote. “Currently the dining hall situation is the only truly negative aspect of being at Yale and is basically the only reason that I feel I must move off campus.”
When asked to what degree food quality affects overall residential college experience, the median respondent replied with an eight out of 10. The survey also showed that students polled spend an average of $5 per day on food outside of the dining halls.
Wells O’Byrne ’07, who helped design the poll, said he is hopeful that the survey results will influence administrators’ decisions.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I think our campaign shows a clear demand among students for sustainable food. Now that it’s become clear that it’s a clear priority for students, we hope the administration will see it as a priority as they make their budget decisions for next year.”
The recent results largely reiterated those of the official Dining Services survey released earlier this school year, Huff said, though they also help the cause by emphasizing student interest at a key time in the budgeting process.
But Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle said the survey is not particularly credible because it does not ask students to choose between funding for YSFP and other initiatives.
“The problem is if you ask students if you want more of anything, 80 percent of students will say yes,” he said. “Students are quick to sign petitions.”
Suttle cited a petition from several years ago showing that more than 2,000 students supported a Tamil language program, despite the fact that many did not know what Tamil was.
Not all survey respondents said YSFP expansion is the proper approach to improving food quality. A menu that better addresses student food preferences would be preferable, some wrote.
“The dining hall does sometimes serve good food, but they serve it with such staggering irregularity that it hardly matters, and they do not listen to the comments about what students would prefer to eat,” one respondent wrote. “YSFP is not necessarily the only option or a cure-all.”
Huff said the Dining Services budget is lower than it was two years ago, before Yale reduced its expenses by 5 percent University-wide. As part of the overall Dining Services budget, the food budget was particularly impacted because union contracts preclude wage decreases, but Huff said the Sustainable Food Project has received a funding boost every year since its inception.