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‘Functionally Food Insecurity’: Harvard Students’ Decades-Long Push For Hot Kosher Lunch

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From the time David E.B. “Davey” Schoenberg ’20-’22 arrived on campus in 2016 until last week, he has only been able to eat one hot meal per day in Harvard’s dining halls.

Schoenberg is one of roughly 40 students on campus who keep kosher, following strict dietary restrictions according to Jewish law. Just one dining hall covered by Harvard’s undergraduate meal plan, Harvard Hillel, is kosher, and it is only open for dinner. Only cold kosher lunch options are provided under the meal plan.

Schoenberg and other students have spent years advocating for the College to expand its kosher lunch offerings, particularly to add hot lunch. That advocacy finally came to fruition Dec. 1, when Harvard University Dining Services launched a hot kosher lunch pilot in Quincy House, which students said they hope will be expanded.

Kosher-keeping students say they pay the full price of $7,236 for an unlimited meal plan, but only receive one-third of the hot meals non-kosher-keeping students do. Students may only opt out of Harvard’s meal plan if they live off campus or for medical reasons, not for religious reasons.

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“The choice to make us stay on this meal plan was unkind in the seven or six semesters before this one where I didn’t have access to lunch,” Schoenberg said.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard recognizes there is “always room for improvement in the support we offer to our students.”

“The College hopes to continue the work of engaging in dialogue with students to find ways to support them as we partner with HUDS in thinking about long-term solutions — in addition to short-term pilot programs like the kosher lunch program at Quincy House,” she wrote. “In addition, the Board of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life at the College has prioritized this issue (among others) as well, and is considering how their collaborative work can advance this issue.”

‘Functionally Food Insecurity’

People who keep kosher must consume food that conforms to Jewish dietary regulations — known by the Hebrew word “kashrut” — which prohibit the mixing of meat and milk products and prescribe that animals be slaughtered according to kosher rules and that a supervisor called a mashgiach must oversee food preparation.

The dietary regulations also oppose kosher food mixing with non-kosher food or touching utensils that have touched non-kosher food. The food must also be properly and constantly supervised by a mashgiach to remain kosher.

Until the pilot launched last week, Harvard undergrads who keep kosher relied on lunch options such as dining hall “kosher corners” — fridges stocked with kosher food and a microwave meant to be used solely for kosher foods — or HUDS’s grab-and-go service, FlyBy.

“We have a kosher fridge, which is technically supposed to be stocked with kosher foods, but I’ve checked there — there’s really only tuna fish and frozen waffles, which I once tried to eat, but they were moldy,” said Sarah Bolnick ’23, a resident of Pforzheimer House.

Schoenberg added that the kosher microwaves are not locked, and he has seen students and dining hall staff use them to heat up non-kosher foods, which would make the microwaves no longer permissible to use with kosher food.

Students who have other dietary restrictions in addition to keeping kosher said they find it even more difficult to sustain themselves throughout the day, according to Abigail S. Huebner ’23, who is strictly gluten-free due to a health condition.

“It feels like you’re able to somewhat be one or the other at Harvard, but you can’t really be both because FlyBy was always sandwiches,” Huebner said. “I still generally either get fruit or sometimes yogurt from FlyBy, or I find things in the Hillel building. Or I just don’t eat lunch.”

Harvard Hillel Orthodox Rabbi Daniel “Dani” Passow recalled one vegetarian kosher-keeping student who lost 15 pounds due to a lack of access to kosher food.

One student — to whom The Crimson granted anonymity in order to discuss private health information — said they sought help from the Accessible Education Office due to their medical dietary restrictions in addition to keeping kosher.

The student said they felt the AEO discriminated against them because they keep kosher, alleging that the AEO officer told them they had to choose between keeping kosher and accommodating their medical restrictions.

The student said Harvard’s limited kosher options have led kosher-keeping students to a situation that is “functionally food insecurity,” with some resorting to hoarding food or rationing leftovers over a number of days.

Hillel tries to informally supplement food options by keeping leftovers from its events in a refrigerator, according to Executive Director Jonah C. Steinberg, though he acknowledged that doing so is “sub-optimal and even at times hazardous.”

“Availability of kosher food at lunchtime through HUDS has been a perennial challenge,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

Another issue kosher-keeping students raise is financial equity, noting that Harvard only allows students to opt out of its meal plan if they live off-campus or have medical dietary restrictions which HUDS cannot accommodate.

“I was like, fine, I give up, like, ‘You’re not feeding me, at least don’t make me pay,’” Schoenberg said. “They don’t care that if we have religious restrictions that they clearly can’t accommodate — that doesn’t enter into their picture and into what they factor in.”

Jacob M. Miller ’25 called the policy “unfair,” citing an existing option for off-campus students to buy variable meal plans of five, 10, or 21 meals per week, according to HUDS’s website.

“For people who do keep kosher, they’re only partaking in a fraction of the benefits of a full meal plan,” Miller said. “It seems unfair to mandate that we pay for the full meal plan when we’re not reaping the full benefits.”

Some students have even considered moving off-campus in order to access a partial meal plan.

“There are many people, including myself, who have considered moving off-campus, not because we’re not satisfied with our Houses, but because it would be cheaper — not just cheaper — we would eat better and be more satisfied living off-campus,” Schoenberg said. “This lack of food is pushing people to move off-campus and leave their House community.”

‘It Shouldn’t Be My Responsibility’

Accommodating the dietary restrictions of students who keep kosher is a controversy that goes back decades. Advocacy efforts picked up this past summer, however, when a group of four undergraduates — Schoenberg, Rebecca S. Araten ’22-’23, Matthew M. Jelen ’22, and Aviva L. F. Ramirez ’22-’23 — took up the cause.

Laura E. “Lori” Fein ’91, a former Crimson Editorial editor who serves on the board for Hillel, also played a crucial role in getting the Quincy pilot off the ground.

According to Fein, the four students asked her to help advocate for a hot lunch option.

Fein said she met with Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, HUDS Managing Director Smitha S.H. Haneef, and Associate Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt ’01 about the issue, though she credits Director of Residential Dining Operations Bruce Calvert for “cut[ting] to the chase” and launching the pilot.

“Finally, instead of having these large meetings with lots of people and lots of ideas and tons of wonderful goodwill, we had someone who could actually solve the problem, and within a week, suddenly there appeared a solution,” Fein said.

Jelen, who was involved in the recent efforts that secured the Quincy lunch, said he was “heartened” by productive meetings between HUDS and kosher-keeping students over the summer.

“I think a lot of that was the initiative of Managing Director Smitha Haneef who approached this job and saw the problem about kosher lunch and decided this was something she wanted to tackle,” Jelen said. “That was something that I think many other kosher students really appreciated.”

In an emailed statement, HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin wrote that HUDS was “pleased” to have begun a “strong dialogue” with students over the summer.

“HUDS is committed to working in partnership with our kosher-keeping community to resolve issues and provide choices that create an inclusive dining [experience] while respecting and supporting the cultural, religious and dietary sensitivities of each person,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, Schoenberg said he was frustrated the burden fell on students to advocate for increased options.

“To some extent, it feels like Harvard is paying lip service to diversity and inclusion and doesn’t actually care about this inclusion — that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to have to advocate for myself to this extent,” he said.

‘A Step in the Right Direction’

Students gave the pilot’s opening days a mixed review, though most said the new program was a step in the right direction.

“It was chicken and some pasta with marinara sauce and some roasted zucchini,” Leah R. Baron ’25 said. “I thought it was perfectly fine.”

Bolnick said she was grateful for the hot lunch, but noted that choices remain limited.

“If you don’t like the one option — like I don’t know, some people don’t like white meat and at times it gets dried out especially if it’s prepared the night before, so it wasn’t the tastiest,” Bolnick said. “But it was something, so that was great.”

Kosher-keeping students still lack hot lunch on Sundays, when FlyBy is closed and the pilot is not running.

Fein said expanding kosher options will have impacts beyond the current student population.

“In terms of admissions and recruitment, the lack of a reasonable kosher option has hurt Harvard in the past and will continue to hurt Harvard,” Fein said, adding that Princeton, Columbia, and Penn have more “robust” kosher offerings.

“I do know many students who I was excited to invite to come to Harvard who simply said that they weren’t even applying,” she said.

Students said they would continue to push Harvard to expand its kosher offerings.

“The long-term hope remains of the buffet-style [lunch] at Harvard Hillel,” Schoenberg said. “I think that’s the best option.”

Fein proposed that the University orders lunch from a kosher caterer, similar to what Harvard did last year during the pandemic.

“Students who need to have a kosher lunch option should have something more than the exact same soggy egg salad or tuna salad sandwich, or turkey sandwich, day by day, week by week, month by month, for four straight years,” she said.

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at raquel.coronelluribe@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

—Staff writer Vivian Zhao can be reached at vivian.zhao@thecrimson.com.

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