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Nearly 15 years ago, the Harvard administration and its financial managers thought it was acceptable to undermine House residents breaking their nightly fast. Amid widespread budget cuts, University leadership decided to cut “hot breakfast” — the combination of scrambled eggs, sausage, and french toast, with a side of fresh fruit. For over ten years following the decision, this kind of breakfast was only served at the first-year dining hall in Annenberg, until it was slightly expanded to Quincy House in 2021.
The campaign to reinstate hot breakfast in upperclassmen dining halls — which I am a part of — is a coalition of students and the dining workers’ union that aims to give more shifts and hours to workers, and more scrambled eggs and bacon to students. Around 2,000 Harvard undergraduates signed a petition in favor of hot breakfast that was delivered to administrators last fall.
What has not been understood about the removal of hot breakfast is that it represents issues that extend beyond the dining halls — a disregard for student voices, an undermining of organized labor, and a pattern of masking austerity as a necessity. If we allow such erosion in our campus relationships to persist, it will only signal to future administrations that they can cut deeper in the name of fiscal responsibility.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, Harvard’s corporate DNA believed budget cuts were in order. HUDS eliminated nearly all hot breakfast options in House dining halls in the Spring of 2009. In addition to culling hot breakfast, Harvard made reductions to the Quad shuttle service. These cuts — which directly targeted students — underscored a willingness to treat basic aspects of student residential life as expendable.
When HUDS cut hot breakfast, they tried repackaging it as a win for students. HUDS Executive Director at the time, Ted A. Meyer, claimed that cutting hot breakfast would save $900,000 a year and that the cost savings would allow for an increase in the budget for brain break, a late-night snack service offered to students during the week. Yet replacing morning scrambled eggs and chicken sausage with nightly cheese and crackers is hardly a win for students. In reality, changes that are advertised in the interests of students repeatedly and conveniently boost Harvard’s bottom line, a point Crimson editors made almost two decades ago.
In truth, the cuts to hot breakfast in 2009 attacked Harvard’s few places of community. By suggesting we could just go to Annenberg (and now Quincy), administrators implied that the dining halls were simply cafeterias rather than centers of several residential communities.
Students build special connections with the people in their House. The dining hall is where our housemates, tutors, and faculty and residential deans come together for a meal and to host House events. Slashing hot breakfast undermined the idea that the House system is the “foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College.”
It’s also worth contextualizing the timing of the cuts to hot breakfast. In 2004, the College expanded the financial aid program by covering the tuition of students whose household incomes were less than $65,000 a year. Then, in 2008, the Middle Income Initiative introduced even more reforms to make a Harvard education affordable. But just as the College took these steps to increase the presence of low and middle-income students, austerity measures reduced the quality of dining and residential life. What message did that send to us working-class students?
Austerity measures have also played a role in shortening organized labor. UNITE Here Local 26 union workers were materially impacted by the cuts, which threatened full-time appointments for union staff. During the same period, more than 100 unionized custodians were affected by hour reductions and more than 20 non-unionized library positions were eliminated. While these workers had their hours and jobs cut left and right, University President Drew G. Faust saw her salary soar in the years that followed.
The hot breakfast campaign is trying to not only reclaim these hours and shifts for workers but also to alleviate the current burden on dining hall staff. As Charlene V. Almeida, a HUDS worker of two decades, told The Crimson last fall, Quincy is serving 600 students for breakfast. Expanding hot breakfast to just one-third of the Houses, including a location in the Quad, would ease the struggles of workers in the morning.
Ultimately, it’s deeper than hot breakfast. We must push back against this repeated cycle of austerity by challenging the value system of our institution. That means organizing and building coalitions with each other around issues that mutually affect us — including when it comes to hot breakfast.
So whether you are a student, faculty member, or non-academic worker, use your voice. Let’s continue to democratically petition, protest, and press those in leadership that they cannot literally take food off our plates and expect to be met with indifference.
If we let this slide, we should not be surprised when our needs and interests are auctioned off every time the Corporation needs to save a dollar.
Prince A. Williams ‘25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “Fight the Power!” runs bi-weekly on Mondays.
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