'Sustainability?’ Perhaps

If the recent union proposals lead to better food, they deserve our support

On Monday—Labor Day—while many of us might have been savoring one last bit of summer away from Harvard, or at Harvard wishing we were savoring it somewhere else, 500 unionized Harvard employees and their supporters marched for better contracts. The rally saw security guards and dining hall workers demand a mixture of improved working conditions. For security guards, year round pay and split hours were the issue; for the dining hall workers, it was a coveted 40-hour workweek and, intriguingly, more “sustainable” food production.

Although it’s a term often used but rarely defined, “sustainability” in this case means that dining hall workers want to see more food preparation moved back in-house, after the College’s increased outsourcing to industrial-like operations run by the likes of large catering companies like Sysco.

As students who have not studied the minute details of the carbon footprint left by Harvard University Dining’s Services’ operations, it’s difficult to assess how much of an environmental difference the dining staff’s demands would actually effect. Although the relatively novel occurrence of labor activism entwined with sustainable causes provokes welcome attention, onlookers should have good reason to be skeptical whether a marriage of convenience isn’t really the major motivating factor behind this move. To that end, Harvard and UNITE HERE—the HUHDS’ staff union—should, at the very least, investigate more seriously whether in-sourcing this massive culinary production will really be greener before making any decision on so-called environmental grounds. We’d be curious to know.

From a student perspective, however, these demands only shed more light on another aspect of what might be called the HUHDS “experience”—namely, the quality of the food produced. Many undergraduates at Harvard, not too mention other residents of the Houses, frequently express the opinion that the quality—in terms of both the taste and nutritional value—of HUHDS food has deteriorated considerably over the years. This can range from the absence of hot breakfasts in the Yard Houses to the obvious reality that much of the food served is pre-frozen and stands little chance of making it beyond standard institutional grade fare.

In that sense, regardless of its environmental impact, students have every reason to support the unions’ proposal. If the proposal entails more people spending more time to prepare better meals—and doing more of the actual cooking on-site with higher quality, healthier ingredients—then student-employee interests seem very much aligned.

Of course, Harvard’s entire community has a stake in helping our institution maintain a healthy budget, but—at the same time—resource allocations seem to have strayed too far away from prioritizing food and, to some extent, dining. It’s a reasonable and good thing to spend a lot of money on food. There’s also no reason to have lower quality food than peer institutions: Harvard, after all, remains by far the best-endowed higher education institution in the United States and the world. It seems that all too often, undergraduates share stories of leaving their House dining halls with a sour taste in their mouths, starting to get stomach cramps, and strangely not that full having just eaten a pile of assorted food.

Admittedly, UNITE HERE’s call for more “sustainable” methods of food production has yet to be convincingly substantiated with evidence that longer workers’ hours will actually have any impact on the environment whatsoever. That said, the prospect of more cooking brought back to our kitchens—including the massive, largely unused, bakery underneath Kirkland and Eliot Houses—makes the proposals worth supporting in any case.

Bottom line: Healthier, tastier food could be just over the horizon for Harvard. And, for once, we’re not just talking about next week’s department lunch at the Faculty Club.