Tag Archive: Yale Dining

  1. Food Fight

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    It’s been called everything from a “food factory” to “the ripping apart of Yale’s residential dining.”

    But when I first entered Yale Dining’s Culinary Support Center (CSC) in early September, it was just another part of the network of the University dining operations—albeit a shiny, new one.

    When the CSC was announced in the summer, its news was largely overshadowed by the closing of Commons for hot breakfast. Plus, the facility’s purpose seemed simple enough: to house the new bakery and catering operations, while also consolidating cold food production to one location.

    In other words, rather than preparing the salad bars and deli stations for 5,500 students across 14 different locations, all the dicing, chopping, mixing and slicing would now be done under one roof. And with University president Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak calling on the entire University to help curb Yale’s $39 million dollar budget deficit last year, Yale Dining appeared to have cooked up a solution to the University’s slimming pocketbook.

    Executive Director of Yale Dining Rafi Taherian and Director of Culinary Excellence Ron DeSantis met me at the door of the inconspicuous facility at 344 Winchester Avenue, which looked like a normal warehouse. After placing a hairnet on my head and securing my notepad and pen, I followed Yale’s top dining boss and top chef through the inner bellies of the very operation that would now feed Yale’s students.

    With each room, there was a new benefit. The new state of the art dishwashers meant that workers wouldn’t be cleaning plates in scalding, steam room conditions. A new food processor meant that the hummus students would be eating was now “smoother” than ever before. A computerized deli slicer would decrease worker injuries from repetitive motion and keep the turkey nice and thin. The storage room and refrigerators contained the finest ingredients: pallets of imported chocolate, extra virgin olive oil from Italy, and wild Alaskan salmon.

    “This is a facility for chefs to do what they are passionate about with the right tools and equipment,” DeSantis said. “We are not opening boxes of anything. We’re making it fresh.”

    I left the CSC content, stuffed with heirloom tomato burrata salad and warm lemon bars from the bakery.

    But despite the glittering façade of brand new stainless steel appliances, I had missed something: a coalition of workers were angry — extremely angry. Some were upset about job security. Some were upset about the direction of Yale Dining’s food. Others were simply unhappy about the new location. But administrators have defended the decision to create the CSC, citing improvements in efficiency and quality. While I couldn’t have known it at the time, in just a few short weeks, the tension between union-backed employees and administrators would heat up.

    It all started with a letter. On the morning of Tuesday, September 16th, students and faculty who picked up a copy of the News may have been surprised by something unusual on page 8: a full-page advertisement purchased by Local 35, Yale’s blue-collar union, featuring a photo of Silliman College Chef Stuart Comen accompanied by an open letter. “Dear Students,” the text began, “As chef of Silliman for 31 years, I look forward to students returning to school. But this year, there’s an edge of frustration and disappointment.”

    For Comen and the Local 35 Dining Hall team that signed the letter, the CSC had become a nightmare. In their view, rather than providing cold foods for students, it presented a buffet of problems for dining hall workers.

    “Yale is giving in to the worst corporate practices, reducing the quality of your meals, disrespecting our staff and depriving a community of opportunity,” Comen wrote. “This is the wrong direction, and undermines the tradition of Yale College dining.”

    One dining hall worker, who like all dining hall workers spoke on the condition of anonymity, said administrator gave them no real choice with the CSC — it was either accepting the changes or finding other employment. With families to support, she said this wasn’t a real option.

    When I spoke to Comen the day the letter was published, I asked him whether he feared any backlash after speaking out publicly against his bosses and the institution that employed him. He said he knew Taherian and DeSantis would be upset but, “business is business.”

    “I am not afraid to speak up if it is the truth, and if it affects my customer I am going to speak up,” Comen added.

    But the truth regarding the CSC depends precisely on whom you ask. And here lies the crux of the dispute: the unions have one story, and the University has another.

    Dining disputes are nothing new to campus.

    For the past century, flaring tensions between Yale Dining workers and University administrators have led to a range of conflicts including a strike in every decade since the 1960s to the 2000s and eight total walkouts between 1968 and 2003.

    The source of bitterness has changed from generation to generation; however, the sentiment remains largely the same. A 1996 New York Times’ article, published following a four-week strike in that year, put it best: a Yale Dining dispute “is almost as much a Yale tradition as ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’ and secret societies.”

    During a recent 2003 dispute, members of Local 35 — including Yale Dining staff — picketed for 23 days. Workers famously protested on Beinecke plaza by banging pots and pans.

    Like prior incidents, the issue revolved around contractual conditions. After multiple rounds of negotiations, Local 35 and the University reached an agreement, compromising on an eight-year contract in return for concessions on pensions.

    Since the 2003 bargain was reached, Yale has witnessed a relatively calm front in dining hall relations. The latest contract was forged in 2012 with markedly less acrimony than had been the norm for second half of the 20th century.


    “The strikes… occurred many years ago and were very difficult on the employees involved and the University,” University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in a statement on behalf of Yale Dining.

    When asked whether any parallels existed between past experience and today’s growing tension, Conroy did not answer directly. However, he noted that the current contract with Local 35 does not expire until early 2017, and as a result, the union is prohibited from being able to strike until then.

    Even if Local 35 doesn’t have the legal right to strike, they have expressed their outrage in other ways.

    On the Wednesday following the publication of Comen’s letter to students, Local 35 added fuel to the fire: The union filed a legal complaint against the University with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And with a few pieces of paperwork, a mere food fight became much more than that.

    But Comen’s letter wasn’t just about labor. The elimination of the head pantry worker position merited a mere few sentences in a nine paragraph plea, and the remainder focused on the poor quality of food at the CSC.

    The only part of the letter signed by the entire Local 35 dining hall team was a box of bolded text at the bottom.

    “We are fighting to restore the standard of high quality food that you deserve,” it read. “We sincerely apologize if you find any of your means unsatisfying.” No mention of job security—Local 35 framed the debate over the CSC in terms of food.

    The day after I first interviewed Comen, he texted telling me to try the cauliflower salad in the dining halls that day.

    “It’s horrible looking and tasting and that’s why I’m speaking up,” the message read.

    But when asked whether he knew about the NLRB complaint the Union had filled on the same day, he said he was unaware.

    Some workers worry that delicate items such as roasted vegetables and compound salads will not transport well from the CSC to dining halls. As a result, they say, students may now face soggy potatoes or unevenly tossed couscous.

    One dining hall worker explained that while there may be greater consistency among the dining halls under a centralized model, it comes at a cost.

    “The food is disgusting,” she said. “It is the same repetitious stuff, you have ham and turkey every single day. You used to have differences — salami, smoked turkey, bologna and liverwurst.”

    The head pantry worker contacted at Conroy’s recommendation disagreed, noting that the greater equality among the dining halls has improved the food’s overall taste. However, she feared the products leaving the facility may be different than what arrives in dining halls.

    “Right now we don’t know who is handling it at the other end, draining the juice when it comes—are they mixing the product right?” she said.

    One head pantry worker explained that the CSC was meant to use fresher ingredients. But, she said, standards have regressed.

    While things like dressings are still handmade, she said they are now produced in plastic bags and on eight times the scale as previously.

    “We used to have such high standards,” she said of Yale Dining. “We changed the whole concept of [college] dining, now we have gone back.”

    However, DeSantis was quick to dismiss the union claim that the CSC had was a “food factory.” He argued that a food factory does not bring in pallets of fresh ingredients daily, does not purchase 49 percent of its produce regionally and does not prepare foods that are “handcrafted with care.” In fact, DeSantis said, the center was created in response to student feedback.

    He said the scaling up has had no impact on the final product served since rather than one person working on a salad, there is now a team.

    “The food that we prepare is food I would serve anywhere — believe me,” DeSantis said.

    Despite the Union’s claims that the food quality has decreased—the claim they used to frame the issue in Comen’s letter and in the note from Local 35—students have noticed little difference in the quality of the food. If anything, they say, it has improved.

    “The food this year has been pretty good,” Amelie Thouvenot ’17 said. She described the selections as consistently fresh and “completely fine.”

    Jiou Yu ’16 said he the quality of the deli bar has stayed consistent between last year and this year. He joins the 17 other students out of 25 surveyed who noticed no difference in the deli bar’s quality.

    “This year has gotten a lot better. There is edamame in the salad bar, not like in the past” Libby Henry ’17 said. “Since I am a vegan, what I eat is a lot of the cold food and it’s definitely improved.”

    Henry is not alone. Eleven students out of 25 surveyed noted an improvement in the salad bar, with an additional 11 seeing no difference at all.

    David Roeca ’15 said the CSC has most likely improved the efficiency of the dining halls. However, he feared there might be less creative control as a result.

    Still, only two students out of seven interviewed were aware of the CSC’s existence—let alone any related drama.

    Which raises questions of what the real issue is with the CSC. If students don’t mind the food, then why are workers angry?

    The answer can be found in the NLRB complaint, the first such action since 2011. While decrying food quality may grab more readers’ attention, this isn’t the only issue at stake.

    Local 35 President Bob Proto said that the complaint raises two grievances: that Yale violated its contract with the union by relocating jobs without proper negotiation, and that it then failed to provide the union with information pertaining to the CSC.

    But University Spokesman Tom Conroy sees no problem with the transfers.

    Conroy dismissed the NLRB complaint as a tactic that has been employed in the past whenever the unions are upset about a decision. He added that the accusations are without merit since the University discussed the relocations with the Union before the opening of the CSC.

    But workers worry that buzzwords like “centralization,” which is what the University has called the relocations, are a smokescreen for a plan to phase out jobs as workers retire or the contract expires.

    Proto noted the most vulnerable workers were those in the position of head pantry worker. These workers, who had previously overseen cold food preparation in the colleges, have seen their jobs moved from the individual residential dining halls to the centralized location.

    This seems innocent enough at first. But an anonymous worker in Yale Catering said there is simply not enough space in the CSC to accommodate these relocated workers.  He said he takes this to imply that some jobs will eventually disappear.

    Conroy reaffirmed that no Local 35 employees had lost their jobs, or had had their pay or hours cut. But he did not deny that the workforce may change in the future.

    “The position of head pantry [worker] has not been eliminated from Yale Dining,” he said. “But it is the case that there likely will be fewer of them in the future. If the work is no longer needed, the position is not filled — that is attrition.”

    But job security isn’t the only issue: workers have taken the move as a personal slight.

    “I used to work in a dining hall,” said a head pantry worker. “Now I work in the factory.”

    Another worker called the move “devastating.”

    These experiences and others suggest that morale is low among employees working at the CSC. Pantry workers feel they have lost the communities they built among the teams in the residential dining halls. The relocation also meant that positions in the college dining halls had to be reshuffled, and some workers there say they had to choose a new job during a mere ten-minute window of time.

    But for DeSantis, the Director of Culinary Excellence, the idea of flagging morale could not be further from the truth.

    “I see professionals, dedicated and really good culinarians, working as a very good team and with a lot of great personalities,” he said. “No matter what day of the week it is, someone is going to wake up and not be happy.”

    Conroy conceded that changes in the workplace can be difficult for some employees, especially those who may prefer the old arrangement. He said Yale Dining has made it a priority to create team-building exercises and have regular meetings with staff.

    “Many of the Head Pantry Workers have told us that they are excited about the new team environment at the CSC and the opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art facility with highly skilled chefs,” he said.

    Undermining the Local 35 narrative that all workers were irate, a head pantry worker contacted at Conroy’s recommendation said she was largely okay with the changes to the system.

    “I don’t have a problem [with the CSC],” she said. “It’s more work than I did before, but I have a bigger team to help.”

    When asked why people were so outspoken against the center if it largely requires the same amount of effort, she said it came down to pride.

    Some head pantry workers back in the residential college unit had a sense of importance, she said. But in the CSC, all head pantry workers do the same work.

    “These people have been in dining halls for years and it’s a change for them,” a dining worker still in the college said. “It is like, excuse my French, taking breast milk from a baby and giving them a bottle.”

    America loves a good kitchen showdown. We can’t help but eat up shows like “Iron Chef” and “Cupcake Wars.” Sometimes, a food fight is just too delicious to pass up.

    But there’s nothing savory about the dispute over the CSC. There is no clichéd image of spaghetti being thrown or mashed potato being flicked. It’s a food fight in the most literal sense of the word — a fight over how Yale students should be fed. And yet, the solution may come down to something as simple as table manners: speaking and being a good listener in turn.

    “There could be stronger communication between the two sides,” a catering worker said. DeSantis also urged further dialogue among all parties. He added he would welcome sitting down with dining workers to discuss changes to CSC at any time.

    When asked what the long term solution could be, Comen was also more optimistic than some of his previous comments suggested.

    “If the CSC in the next two months looks good and it looks like something our customers should get, I have no problem coming back to the newspaper and saying that it has improved,” Comen said. “But at this point I don’t think my customers are getting what they deserve and that is the bottom line.”

    One dining hall worker summed up the most likely outcome in the near future: both sides waiting it out. She said the migration to the CSC was like buying a new pair of shoes; if after five wears they still don’t fit, then maybe it’s time to return them.

    With time, a solution may be possible. But it will be up to both sides to come to the table.


    Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the version that appeared in print on Friday, October 3. 

  2. Counting Cookie Calories


    Commons is bustling. Students mill around the salad bars, dessert trays and fruit baskets. One girl moves slower than the rest. She pauses by the baked goods, reaches for a brownie, then glances up, noticing something. She hesitates, frowning, and her hand wavers. She turns away from the tray of chocolaty goodness.

    What changed her mind? A menu identifier, one of those white placards with nutritional information and a calorie count that accompany almost every dish served in Yale dining halls. For better or for worse, they influence the way that students eat.

    Maybe this girl has paused because this card lists an exorbitant number of calories for a single brownie. These inaccuracies are pretty common: on the Yale Dining website, for example, every piece of fresh fruit is listed as having 63 calories each. It’s unlikely that an apple, orange, banana and kiwi all have the exact same calorie count. Maybe this girl is surprised by a sudden nummerical change in the richness of her brownie. Calorie counts on menu identifiers are not uniform over time: on Sundays in some dining halls, students are told that today’s brownies contain zero calories.

    These cards have become the brunt of jokes around campus, but many students do not realize the inaccuracies of the calorie counts. And, given inaccurate and inconsistent information, students trying to make healthy choices can be led astray.

    Many debate the value of the calorie-conscious culture these cards promote in Yale’s dining halls. Some argue that, by drawing attention to their daily caloric intake, Yale Dining allows students to prevent the drastic weight gain that leads to obesity, diabetes and other health complications. Others worry that calorie-counting facilitates a growing trend of eating disorders, particularly among young women.

    These cards do have the potential to help students, but their current unreliability provokes more anxiety than it allays.

    * * *

    Aaron Gertler ’15, a gluten-free, sugar-free and “almost dairy-free” eater and “self-described nutrition geek,” said that the two words he would use to describe Yale Dining are “unlimited vegetables.”

    “That’s a big deal!” he shouted into the phone during our interview. Once he had calmed down, he added that, no matter what health plan a student wants to pursue, to a reasonable extent, the dining halls are there to assist in that plan.

    Right now, according to Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke, Yale Dining’s primary initiatives include reducing the presence of processed foods on the menu and increasing the prevalence of plant-based foods and whole-grain breads. And students have noticed Yale Dining’s recent attention.

    “It’s not reasonably possible to do better than Yale does in a cafeteria that serves thousands of people per day,” Gertler continued.

    The menu identifiers are part of these efforts. They display information on allergies, vegan or vegetarian classification, an ingredients list, grams of fat, protein, etc., as well as a count of the calories in each dish. The idea behind the cards is that they will help students make informed decisions about the food they consume, said Van Dyke.

    “This is especially important for people with food allergies or particular dietary constraints,” she added.

    The cards were originally introduced in 1999. The earliest versions only included the name of the dish. In 2001, the dining halls added nutritional information — grams of fat, grams of sugar and calorie estimates. In 2003, the ingredients list was included, and in 2007 allergy information was printed on each card. This year, the menu identifiers have been redesigned with new icons and terminology to make the cards’ information clearer and more accessible.

    Though allergy information was added last, this tends to be the most highly prioritized, and accurate, piece of data on the cards.

    “The most important aspect is clearly indicating potential allergens as these can be life-threatening,” said Van Dyke.

    After attending to these potentially fatal allergies, Yale Dining’s next priority is informing vegans and vegetarians of the contexts of each dish. Calorie estimation, a technically unessential bit of information, is prioritized last.

    * * *

    But because calorie counts are not a top priority, they tend to be inaccurate, and thus lose students’ trust.

    Erica Pandey ’17 argued that calories on most dishes are underestimated, while the calories on dessert items seem like exaggerations.

    “I actively pay no attention to the cards because I think they’re very wrong,” she said.

    Not everyone shares Pandey’s view. In fact, not everyone knows that these cards are there. Of the 40 students I informally surveyed over a lunch at Commons, only half had ever looked at the menu identifier cards. Boys and girls were equally likely to have noticed the cards, but once read, the information on them had far greater influence over women than men. The only male respondent who said that menu identifiers affected the way he ate explained that he was an athlete and had to watch his diet.

    Ryan Campbell ’16, another man interviewed, pays attention to the cards primarily because of his allergy to tree nuts. To that end, he is “really thankful” that the dining halls have signs above the dishes.

    He noted in our conversation, however, “there are mistakes on [the cards] every now and then.” If it seems like an allergen could have been omitted, he approaches dining hall staff and asks for clarification.

    Although the menu identifiers serve many purposes, a majority of the girls influenced by the cards focused only on the calorie counts — not the ingredients list or the vegan/vegetarian classification — as the primary factor in their decision-making. Pandey, though not one of the girls interviewed for my survey, acknowledged that this information is hard to ignore.

    “[The cards] make you remember that food has calories,” Pandey said.

    While they grab students’ attention, the cards’ calorie counts aren’t reliable. Many students mentioned that they simply didn’t trust these figures. Three girls interviewed commented that the cards didn’t affect them for that reason alone. If the cards were perceived to be accurate, these students said they might take heed.

    * * *

    On a card in Commons, a chocolate chip cookie is listed as having 457.13 calories per serving. But, given complaints about the perceived inaccuracy of menu identifiers, I decided to estimate the caloric value of a chocolate chip cookie on my own.

    Each ingredient in a cookie recipe has a widely accepted and scientifically determined count of calories within it. For example, one tablespoon of butter (1/8 of a stick) contains approximately 100 calories. Using these numbers for each ingredient, you can predict how much energy is stored in whatever  recipe you make.

    For my own experiment, I consulted Yale Dining’s ingredient list for Yale’s chocolate chip cookies, and then searched for online recipes that also used these ingredients (the actual recipe from Yale Dining was not made available). I estimated the caloric value of an entire batch of cookies and then divided the total by the number of servings given for each recipe.

    After averaging the caloric value of chocolate chip cookie recipes from Betty Crocker, Cook’s Illustrated, and Silver Palate, I determined that the average caloric value of a single cookie was 218 calories. As reported on their company websites, chocolate chip cookies from McDonalds are 160 calories and those from Subway are no more than 220.

    In contrast, a Yale chocolate chip cookie racks up a whopping 457 calories, or so the cards say. It seems unlikely that a dining hall as health-conscious as Yale’s, would produce cookies that are more than twice as caloric as those of a fast food chain. More likely, the numbers on the cards are reporting twice the actual caloric value.

    The process I used for my experiment is very similar to Yale Dining’s way of estimating calories, except that I did it all by hand. Yale Dining has a database of specific nutritional information, which it gathers from vendors as well as standard nutritional labels. Given their access to this information, it’s surprising that Yale lists such inaccurate data.

    At first, I thought there was one possible explanation: that the dining halls might be measuring the serving size to be two or three cookies, instead of just one.

    Serving sizes aren’t specified on menu identifiers. Chocolate chip cookies, for example, have a serving size of “1 serving.” Yale Dining looks to the USDA to establish portion size standards, Van Dyke said. However, the specific USDA guidelines aren’t included on the menu identifiers.

    In the case of the cookie, Van Dyke did clarify that most nutritional information is for a single-sized serving, i.e. one cookie. Some other factor must be throwing off Yale’s estimations.

    * * *

    As students peruse their options, are they really getting much help from these menu identifiers? With no serving sizes available and often-inaccurate calorie counts, it becomes difficult to see how this feature of these cards helps students make decisions about their health and nutrition.

    People really do pay attention to these cards. Students with allergies and other dietary constraints, often consult them. But their reliability, especially in regard to caloric accuracy, is often in doubt.

    But it is possible that including calorie counts on these cards leads students in the wrong direction. 86 percent of all eating disorders develop during college. And, in a study published in the Journal of American College Health in 1995, 91 percent of women recently surveyed on college campuses had attempted to control their weight through dieting, and 22 percent dieted “often” or “always.”

    While Yale Dining’s priority is simply to provide information, it is still unclear whether such information helps more than it harms. Should we err on the side of calorie ignorance, or slip toward overwhelming awareness?

    When surveyed about whether the cards impacted her eating habits, one girl admitted, glancing away uncomfortably: “No, but they should.”

  3. YCC rolls out winter break meal plan

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    From Jan. 7-12, Yalies back on campus can eat in the Ezra Stiles and Morse dining halls due to a new winter break meal plan organized by the Yale College Council.

    Under the new initiative, students can pre-purchase two to 12 lunches for $7 each, though student-athletes will be provided separate meal cards by the Athletic Department. The meals are available to students both on and off the meal plan during the academic year. The winter break meal swipes may be used for guests, but unused swipes will expire after Jan. 12.

    Students who have purchased meals will be able to pick up meal cards in the Ezra Stiles dining hall at their first meal.