The semi-annual Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project fast is something of a tradition at Yale. Once a semester, students log onto SIS and donate their meal swipes for the day to rapid re-housing projects for New Haven residents going through periods of homelessness. Last semester, about a quarter of all undergraduates participated and over $12,000 was raised for local nonprofit organizations. As one of YHHAP’s most visible (and popular) efforts, the fast comes under a lot of scrutiny. When I applied to be one of the co-coordinators for the fast this year, I knew in a kind of abstract way that there would be some people who took issue with the fast for philosophical or practical reasons. But it was Monday, my first day of soliciting signups for YHHAP, that I realized the extent of the philosophical rift between certain students and the fast.
One student I spoke to seemed shocked to learn that the fast benefitted residents of New Haven. He had apparently been involved in some kind of international aid organization and believed that his donation would be better served in another part of the world where need is even greater. While I absolutely believe that there are people in even more dire straits in far-off countries, I don’t understand how a Yale student can possibly ignore the needs of our own community.
We are all currently residents of New Haven. The people who will benefit from the fast are literally our neighbors. Rapid re-housing projects are specifically designed to make recovery possible for those going through periods of homelessness. These programs help our city become stronger and more stable. While it is easy to forget the needs in our own backyard, we should not be fooled into thinking that Kiko Milano and eight-dollar sandwiches are representative of the New Haven experience. As residents of this city, shouldn’t we have some stake in its well-being? While Yale’s global-mindedness brings an important perspective to campus, it shouldn’t blind us to our immediate surroundings.
Another major criticism of the fast threw me for a bit more of a loop. A couple different groups seemed weary of the “one-time-only” and “event” nature of the fast. They seemed to think that YHHAP is whipping students up into a self-congratulatory frenzy, when the reality is that two days a year will not make nearly as much of a difference as would a constant flow of volunteerism and activism. After having had some time to process this commentary, I would say these critics have some valid points, but ultimately, not supporting the fast is the wrong way to go.
The fast is not a panacea for all of New Haven’s problems, nor is it meant to be. Instead, the fast is a way to rally all of Yale in one giant charity effort. For those who do go out every week and do volunteer work, that is amazing. But people at this school are incredibly busy. (Seriously, some people were in such a panicked rush that they didn’t even stop to hear my pitch. Either that, or they were really good actors.) Not everyone can devote that much time to volunteerism. The fast is an event that is tailor made for exactly those people.
I would also argue that the fast can serve as an educational tool. I certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of homelessness and hunger in New Haven until I started getting involved with YHHAP. Very few people want to do serious research into homelessness and hunger; it’s kind of a downer, and those who do take the time to do research are probably already converted. The fast works well as a singular event because it doesn’t just preach to the choir. Our job as coordinators is not just to get people who already work with YHHAP to do the fast — our job is to convince people who aren’t that interested in social justice to give up their meal swipes for one day.
In the trenches, outside of an unnamed dining hall, my one trump card against the naysayers was, “It’s one day. It’s only one day.” How can a person say no to that? This week people have been asking me if I think it’s okay that the fast is a one-time event. Tomorrow I’ll answer that I think it’s essential.
Ian Garcia-Kennedy is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .