When Yale Dining workers gathered around a copy of a letter — submitted in the form of a paid advertisement to the News — bemoaning recent changes in the dining halls yesterday, a manager threw the letter out.
Tensions in Yale Dining are boiling over. Two months after the University moved cold food production to a centralized location — the Culinary Support Center on Winchester Avenue — some Yale Dining workers are up in arms over working in what they describe as a “food factory.” Still, Yale Dining administrators stand by the new center and highlight the many advantages it brings to campus. Union members have expressed concerns over job preservation, working conditions and food quality, some of which were articulated in a letter from Silliman chef Stuart Comen submitted to the News as a paid advertisement on Tuesday. Comen’s letter voiced dissatisfaction with the CSC on many counts.
“The past three months in dining halls has been nothing but turmoil,” said one head pantry worker who now works in the CSC, speaking anonymously due to concerns over job security. “It is like they drew the line in the sand and declared war with you. There is an open feeling of hostility between us and them.”
Nevertheless, Yale Dining administrators adamantly defended their decision to migrate cold food production to the CSC.
“We made an operational decision that was in the best interest of the University and earlier this year we engaged Local 35 representatives in discussions regarding the new Center,” Executive Director of Yale Dining Rafi Taherian wrote in an email. “Staff have approached me expressing their support of this change. We built a bright, modern, safe, well-equipped space that will allow our dining staff to work at its very best.”
He noted that in large-scale food operations, it is common and often most efficient to centralize a portion of the food preparation, citing the Yale Bakery as a long-standing example.
Director of Culinary Excellence Ron DeSantis said he stands by the quality of the food being produced in the CSC, adding some workers’ characterizations of the CSC as a “food factory” are baseless.
“A food factory does not bring in pallets and pallets of fresh produce everyday. It does not use 49 percent produce purchased regionally.” DeSantis said. “The food that we prepare is food I would serve anywhere, and if I thought I would be working or be part of a food factory, I would have stayed at the Culinary Institute of America.”
DeSantis said he is happy to sit down and talk with Yale Dining employees about the changes, which he said reflect industry standards at even the highest-level catering operations.
He met with Comen recently to make adjustments to menus, he said, and was surprised that Comen did not raise the strongly held beliefs in his letter during that conversation. Taherian added that Comen had not even visited the CSC before writing the heavily critical letter.
“It was not accurate and I do not think it was fair,” DeSantis said.
Several Yale Dining employees, though, said that the change has led to a decline in the quality of food. The anonymous head pantry worker said it is aggravating that Yale Dining is trying to portray food as “fresher than ever before” when this is not the case. She added that when preparing food for 4,000 students in a central location, it is impossible to give the same level of care and attention as when preparing for 150 to 200 students in one dining hall.
A second head pantry worker said that fresh chicken breast used to be roast and cut every morning in the dining halls, but that chicken salad is now made from frozen pieces of Tyson chicken.
DeSantis argued however, that frozen products make up a minimum of food production and the majority of ingredients remain fresh.
Comen said he thinks delicate items — including roasted vegetables and potato salad — should be made inside the dining hall to preserve quality, rather than transported across campus in tubs. He described the sweet potato salad that entered his kitchens from the CSC as “soggy” and not up to the standards he feels comfortable serving to the students.
“I used to go around the country praising Yale Dining and how we do everything in-house and make everything fresh,” Comen said. “I can’t say that now, except [we] slice a few tomatoes and red onions.”
But he conceded that centralized cold production does make things more efficient, citing improvements in items like hummus, salad dressing and Israeli couscous salad.
While the consequences of the CSC creation may be felt by Yale students in the quality of pasta salads, the stakes for Yale Dining workers — who are members of Yale’s Local 35 union — are much higher. Though Yale Dining administrators claimed the CSC posed no threat to union jobs, workers and union leaders alike suggested that the change will lead to a shrunken and less skilled workforce at the University.
The primary example of this, said Local 35 President Bob Proto, is the gradual reduction of head pantry workers, who traditionally oversaw cold food production inside residential dining halls. According to Proto, the University informed the union that it intends to do away with most of these positions over time through attrition.
However, DeSantis said that the jobs of current head pantry workers are not in jeopardy, and that a certain number of the positions will still remain.
Even so, head pantry workers at the CSC say their positions, formerly managerial roles, have become dulled down to a series of repetitive jobs.
“That is a de-skilling of the workforce,” said Proto. “When you don’t have folks to do high-quality work and all you need to do is get folks to deliver fast food or pre-cut food, it lessens the skill level while at the same time reducing quality.”
Several former head pantry workers described the change as a major disruption in their lives that was made with little warning. According to the first anonymous head pantry worker, some workers displaced by the CSC were only given 10-minute slots for meetings with their managers, in which they were presented with a list of options for their new job in Yale Dining.
Ultimately, workers suggested that a major part of the issue is a lack of communication between University administrators and Yale Dining management.
“I don’t think this is the world’s worst idea,” the second anonymous pantry worker said. “If they consulted with us and they wanted to try to do this … and came up with a plan, and maybe did it in stages and did it gradually to ask our opinion to make it better, it may have been okay.”
The changes in Yale Dining come on the heels of budget cuts that have significantly strained the relationship between the University and Yale’s unions, Local 34 and Local 35.
Several workers said problems with the CSC have only further raised tensions.
“It is a tough fight right now and the union feels as though we are not being listened to,” Comen said.
Proto said that after Comen’s letter was published, undergraduates have been “pouring in” support to Yale’s unions.
Local 35 will push to reverse the decision to move cold food production to the CSC, Proto said, adding that the focus will also turn to the upper echelons of the administration.
“We’ll focus attention on Peter Salovey,” said Proto. “It’s under his watch that these short-sighted corporate decisions are being made in Yale Dining.”
In addition to cold food preparation, the CSC also houses Yale Bakery and Yale Catering.