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.