To the Editor:
The News’ article “Sustainable food confronts elitist past” (1/12) claims that “thanks to a subsidy from the University that covers the additional cost of sustainable ingredients… the Thain Family Café’s prices are competitive with other New Haven coffee shops.”
Often, the first criticism levied at sustainable food concerns its cost. Certainly, sustainable food doesn’t benefit from the agricultural subsidies that make prices for conventional food artificially low. In this particular case, though, the article fails to note an important point about retail dining locations on campus, which is that they all benefit from subsidies, and not because they use sustainable ingredients.
The University has made a commitment to provide retail locations as a service. They are often open in less-than-prime retail locations and hours. Making these locations accessible, regardless of a students’ financial background, is another important commitment, as is providing its staff with fair wages. These commitments, rather than a commitment to the free market, are what guide choices about subsidizing Yale’s retail locations. The University subsidizes the Thain Family Café for the same reasons it subsidizes Durfee’s, Marigold’s, the School of Management dining hall, the Café at Divinity and the Café at Kline — because these subsidies benefit Yale students and Yale staff.
This focus on whether or not the University subsidizes it, though, draws attention away from the central fact about the Café — like the sustainable food in Yale’s dining halls, the food at the Café is more popular than any other retail location on campus. While we haven’t surveyed customers at the Café, we do survey Yale students every semester about the food available in college dining halls. In the late fall of 2008, over 70 percent of respondents rated the quality of sustainable food better than that of other foods in the dining halls. Furthermore, 77 percent of respondents said that expanding the Project’s offerings was “important” to them, and almost half of these called it “extremely important.” These students’ desire for the Project to expand fuels much of the work we do — it was one of the reasons we collaborated with Yale Dining Services and the Yale University Library on the Café — and is why the Café is as popular as it is.
Melina Shannon, Joshua Viertel, Anastatia Curley
and Laura Hess
The writers are the staff of the Yale Sustainable Food Project.