B-Coop and the Case of the Missing Deliciousness

Columnist Cooper wonders, "Can't we all just get along?"

A certain recent lunch featured a depressing amount of starch. Two kinds of fries. Two kinds of pasta. A chicken and cheese sandwich. Brown rice and more pasta at the pasta bar. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed. The mumbling I’ve overheard lately goes above and beyond the usual mid-winter Massachusetts where’s-my-fresh-fruit blues. House open lists are flooded with anti-Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) rants: “It is THEIR [HUDS’] responsibility to get the funding they need to produce adequate meals for us,” griped one Matherite.

Maybe we’re exaggerating a little. Ignoring that particular lunch’s carb-heavy options, it was possible to make a nutritious and—dare I say it?—tasty lunch out of soup and a spinach salad topped with garlic kale and Tuscan chickpeas. Sounds almost gourmet. But our rumblings, exaggerated though they may be, stem from a legitimate source. Something is going on under the mountain of starch, and I set out to uncover it.

First of all, the HUDS menu plan works on a seasonal system. Right now we’re in the dead of the winter cycle. Winters in Massachusetts aren’t just terrible for our complexions; it’s also the worst time of year for crops. The local climate makes growing anything but squash and root vegetables impossible, so we’re forced to look elsewhere for produce. According to Ted Mayer, HUDS’ Executive Director, “When we planned the menu back in the summer, we accommodated for this annual rise in produce prices”—by limiting fresh fruit options and vegetables like spinach, brussel sprouts and summer squash, for example—“as per usual.”

However, unexpected food price increases have made this year’s annual slump particularly bleak. According to Martin Breslin, Director for Culinary Operations, the price of chicken increased 11 percent, flour 18 percent, and milk a prohibitive 30 percent during the winter menu cycle alone. This inflation—recently the source of countless Economist and New York Times articles—is the symptom of many converging problems. The rising costs of oil has consequences fo the food industry: it’s more expensive to plant, harvest, ship, cook and heat facilities. Populations in countries like India and China are becoming wealthier and eating more meat. Since animals are higher on the food chain, it takes more pure vegetation to yield the same number of calories in meat-form than it would by consuming the plants themselves. This puts a strain on the global demand for plant matter.

But far and away, the culprit for these soaring prices is corn. Last year, 20 percent of the crop was siphoned off to make ethanol, the forerunner of the bio-fuel movement, putting a pinch on the rest of the supply. This sparked a huge chain of events: as the supply of corn for food decreased, prices increased, affecting almost every item in a grocery store since corn derivatives are (alarmingly) ubiquitous. As the corn industry became more lucrative, farmers switched from other vegetables and grains to this cash crop. This decreased the supply of alternate produce and also increased its cost. As non-corn crops became more expensive, animal feed also became pricier and the cost of the meat, in turn, reflects this increase.

While farmers in Iowa are enjoying their first Caribbean vacations this winter due to the unprecedented success of the corn crop this season, Mexico is struggling with tortilla riots. Food aid organizations are grappling with rising costs and decreasing supplies. Economists are worried about the political unrest as the poor are disproportionately affected by soaring food prices. Clearly this issue is much bigger than the pasta problems at Harvard. As anthropology professor James Watson has said, “The fact that even Harvard can’t control it should give us a sense of its gravity.”

HUDS has had to reevaluate food offerings in response to soaring costs. Harvard dining halls may have seen the last of avocados, cherry tomatoes, and mangoes. But, according to Breslin, “We would never compromise quality for cost. We want students to eat well while making sure we’re staying within our budget. We look for comparable substitutions—like Romaine lettuce for Mesclun—not ones that in any way come at the cost of the students’ nutrition.”

The number of entrées has also been cut back for some meals, from three to two. House cooks have been filling in the line with starches on those days. “I had to put something else on the line and my options were rice and fries,” an Adams House general cook said. “There was already rice out there, so I put out the sweet potato fries.”

It was evident from Mayer and Breslin’s surprise that bulking the line with starch isn’t a HUDS mandate but is instead an individual House’s prerogative. “Though the Adams cook was acting with the best intentions, his efforts were misguided,” Mayer said. “We don’t want to fill kids up on starch. It goes against all the nutritional education we’ve worked hard to provide.”

As to whether or not the starch filler is an attempt to disguise the entrée cut back, Mayer said, “The intention is definitely not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, though unfortunately it seems people are perceiving it that way.”

Breslin added, “We will make sure that what happened at lunch today never happens again.”

On the level of HUDS, this global becomes manageable, albeit complex. Though Harvard College, which provides HUDS’ money, has “taken rising food costs into account,” the budget won’t be enough for the dining services to buy food imprudently. We need to work with HUDS to find compromises that allow the dining services to operate within budget while satisfying our nutritional needs and desires.

Unfortunately, the strain of rising food costs is the cause of a growing divide between the student body and the dining services. But just as HUDS realizes we aren’t asking for racks of lamb, we need to realize HUDS isn’t trying to shortchange us. We need to deal with this global—and lasting—issue as a community. Surveys and comment cards are not enough to improve students’ relatoinship with HUDS, and the HUDS Student Advisory Committee, while a step in the right direction, needs to play a more central and visible role in the dialogue between chefs, dining services management, and the student body. Only a committee that truly bridges the different bodies can make changes to satisfy everyone.

—Columnist Rebecca A. Cooper can be reached at