A collective breakdown

Portland State students seeking a healthy and environmentally conscious meal were met with a surprise upon arriving at the Food For Thought cafe on March 31. For more than a decade, Food For Thought had stood as a community space that provided sustainable and affordable eating alternatives at PSU. The cafe’s doors were closed and a flier posted by Student Activities & Leadership Programs broke the startling news—Food For Thought had been closed indefinitely.

Composting the cafe

Collective members (nonhierarchical staff) of Food For Thought were alerted on March 28 that they were temporarily suspended and that all orders for food and supplies must be halted. On the morning of March 31, members were gathered for an emergency meeting with members of the administration. There, the Food For Thought staff were alerted that the cafe would be closing and that the 25 employees would be out of work.

“We were all under the impression that the meeting that we had on Monday was to discuss solutions. At least that was my impression,” said Food For Thought collective member James Lopez.

“We knew there were issues and we thought it was a solution-based kind of meeting—that there was going to be an investigation or whatever you want to call it—but they sent out a press release before our meeting even concluded. That tells me that they knew well in advance that we were going to be terminated, but they decided to call for a meeting regardless,” he said.

Members of the administration, including Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe, Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Conduct and Community Standards Domanic Thomas, Associate Director of SALP Katie Jundt, Coordinator of Student-Operated Services Angela Hamilton, Associate Director of Human Resources: Labor and Employee Relations Roman Diaz, and HR Partner Cedar Lautt laid out the concerns over Food For Thought’s budget.

During the meeting, administrative members reiterated statements issued in a press release from SALP—that by the end of winter quarter, Food For Thought had accumulated a budget deficit of at least $102,599. If allowed to remain open, the deficit was projected to grow to $170,000.

“If they continued at the rate of labor expenses and revenue generation that they’ve been at, that’s where they would be at the end of the year,” Toppe said. “There’s a way the accountants figure out an anticipated expense using a formula for figuring out what’s happened up to this point.”

Members of Food For Thought contested the closure and attempted to detail their efforts to cut expenditures and create a profit, but those attempts were unsuccessful.

“We voiced disdain and basically tried to figure out what other options they had thought and kind of come up with, and it was clear they had no other plan B or C or any sort of ability to compromise on their decision and work with us,” said collective member Ethan Gardner.

According to a statement released by Food For Thought on its Facebook page on April 8, the extent of the deficit was never communicated to staff until March 31, the day that they were terminated.

“While we were in debt, the university’s calculations of our debt were inflated and inconsistent, and the figures presented to us often fluctuated,” the statement read. “Before being shut down, we were never communicated with clearly enough to fully understand our position.”

According to Krystine McCants, Student Fee Committee chair, one aspect that impacted Food For Thought’s 2013–14 budget was $45,901 carried over from the previous fiscal year. According to McCants, this money was automatically carried over after Food For Thought failed to request an optional hearing at the end of the 2012–13 fiscal year.

At this hearing, student-operated services and student organizations have the opportunity to ask for forgiveness for any overspending and underspending. While the hearing is not mandatory, debt is automatically carried over into the next fiscal year if staff or members fail to attend.

“I was made aware in October that Food For Thought hadn’t attended their overage hearing last spring. It definitely raised an eyebrow. That was a huge missed opportunity to start with a clean slate this year,” said Aimee Shattuck, the director of SALP. “It raised the other eyebrow when they didn’t attend budget school in the fall, essentially forfeiting their opportunity for a budget appeal.”

A collective breakdown

According to Food For Thought staff, the $45,901 that was carried over is from a flood that occurred in Smith Memorial Student Union in September 2012. The flood, caused by a backed up sewer drain, forced the cafe to close its doors for several weeks, leading to a substantial loss of revenue. The flood occurred during the second week of fall term, a pivotal time for bringing in new customers at the beginning of the school year.

“We were paid back by the insurance for damages, so I don’t know how much of that Food For Thought really had to absorb…I think that it affected their revenue because they weren’t open right at the beginning of the year,” Hamilton, Food For Thought’s adviser, said.

Hamilton also mentioned that the cafe’s attempts to open a food cart over the summer impacted its budget.

Food For Thought staff members said they opened the cart in part to move some of the business outside during peak hours in the fall, and to make up for low revenue during the summer.

“Generally we try and stay open during the summertime, just because it helps the students that are on campus…there aren’t a whole lot of services offered during the summer to students. And that oftentimes will leave us financially unstable just because we aren’t generating as much revenue as we normally would,” Gardner said.

Food For Thought devoted significant efforts that summer to create a successful food cart in the Park Blocks at PSU, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

“It was completely a loss,” Hamilton said. “They discovered that [it] was going to be a large expense so they decided to cut their losses, from what I understand.”

“We did our best to try and bounce back to make [up] for those hours that we spent getting this food cart running, and that’s when we kind of realized that this was going to be a tough year because we weren’t able to generate that summer revenue,” Gardner said.

According to the SALP press release, another contributing factor to the budget deficit was excess spending on labor.

Hamilton said that during her time as coordinator, labor was difficult to track because collective members did their own scheduling and would frequently swap shifts with one another.

“To say that it is excess spending in labor doesn’t take into account that we’re paid all an equal pay, we don’t have managers, we don’t have supervisors, we don’t take raises. There’s the potential that we could get raises, but we don’t, we choose not to, to maintain the consistent pay for all of our employees,” Gardner said.

“Things like head cooks, sous-chefs, executive chefs don’t exist who are paid generally on salary for restaurants. So to say that our labor is over and that we are spending too much on excess labor is kind of ludicrous in my opinion,” he added.

“They made attempts to cut the hours…and I saw they were talking about decreasing the overall number of operational hours and so they had decreased that,” Hamilton said. “However, when I did add up all the hours, the operational hours were only a portion of their hours.”

Hamilton said that Food For Thought staff also received pay for nonoperational work. Members participated in committees, which included work like sourcing, marketing, risk management and repairs. They were also responsible for food and supply ordering.

“What they’re probably referring to are those nonoperational hours, things like taking an hour every week to do product ordering and coffee ordering and things like that, which otherwise a shift manager would be paid on salary to do. None of us break the poverty line, that I know of,” Gardner said.

The SALP press release also credits the budget deficit to an issue of pricing not matching the cost of food. Food For Thought members credit that claim to the fact that they subsidize their food, selling it at a cheaper and more affordable rate to students.

“That’s also part of our mission statement, is to have food be accessible, and so we oftentimes subsidize our food,” said collective member Haley White.

An ongoing investigation

One of the main contributors to the closure of Food For Thought was what SALP refers to as cash-handling anomalies. These anomalies are being investigated by Student Conduct, Human Resources and Campus Public Safety. Thomas, assistant dean of student life, was unable to comment on the grounds of an ongoing investigation.

One aspect of the investigation surrounding alleged cash handling is the acceptance of tips.

“That is one [of] the things that is problematic. Tips were being collected,” Toppe said. “There’s an investigation being conducted now as to what was happening to tips once they were collected. None of those things are allowed as state employees.”

Liz Kvach, a collective member, explained that workers were not accepting large tip amounts each week and that tips aren’t outrageous when making minimum wage.

“We’re making a soy latte and somebody drops a dollar into a tip jar…We don’t make a livable wage,” Kvach said. “And the tips weren’t egregious. I wasn’t walking away with $90 a night. I was getting maybe $20 every Friday—even less if everyone was working that week. It was quite literally pocket change and that’s why we’re unemployed.”

Some Food For Thought employees credit the cash handling anomalies to human error.

“As a human, there are errors that are made running a register,” Gardner said. “Things are run up too short, things are run up too much, things are lost, refunds are made…receipts not being printed.”

Gardner also pointed out that the cafe has had a history of internet and technology issues.

“When our credit card machines are down, we lose tons of business, and that’s due to the infrastructure of the building which is completely outside of our control,” Gardner said. “The most we can do is make a phone call and hope they’ll come down and try and work it out.”

“I can count on more than both of my hands how many days I would go in and the Internet in all of Smith would be down…I’m sure little things like that were responsible for either overages or shortages,” Lopez said. “We’re not going to deny someone their cup of coffee in the morning because we can’t take a $2.50 swipe on a credit card. Most of our customers are regulars.”

SALP will lead an internal audit of Food For Thought’s budget to determine how the cafe ended with such a significant deficit.

Leadership struggles

During the majority of Food For Thought’s budgetary issues, the cafe’s adviser was Shannon Timm. Timm worked with the cafe from 2005–2007 and 2010–2013. Fall quarter marked Timm’s departure, and Hamilton was hired as an interim until a permanent replacement for the student-operated service coordinator position could be found. Hamilton was permanently hired on March 1.

With Timm gone and budget problems looming, McCants and Hamilton met to discuss the issues and attempt to find ways to address it.

“It turns out the student member [who worked as an accountant for Food For Thought] was completely unaware of the overage existing, let alone what they ought to have done about it last year. I’ve gotten the impression that they were relying on what Timm was telling them, rather than what their SFC liaison was telling them needed to be done,”
McCants said.

“They were just figuring Timm would do it, which is a concern that I had had when I met with Timm shortly before she left—was that she was creating kind of a firewall between students and the process. So when she left, all of this stuff started coming to light that students weren’t as informed as they had seemed in the process in previous years.”

Debt rolling over from the previous year came as a shock to Food For Thought staff. Many felt that the severity of budget issues were never made clear to them by Timm.

“I guess it wasn’t really clear that money was rolling over. It wasn’t apparent to a lot of the people that were working. I can’t really speak for everyone, but I’ve worked here for a while and I had a pretty good understanding of kind of what was going on, and I guess I just had no idea that amount of money was being charged to us as a deficit,” Gardner said.

This is not the first time Food For Thought has dealt with deficit issues. In the 2007–2008 fiscal year the cafe over-spent by $11,286, in 2008–2009 by $27,409, and in 2012–2013 by $45,901.

Timm declined multiple requests for an interview, but did respond with an email message:

“While I appreciate the invitation to speak with you, I feel it would be inappropriate because I am no longer with the university in any capacity. Personally, working with Food For Thought was one of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of my career in Student Affairs. I wish the students all the best as they move onto their next steps, and I hope the university community can come up with an effective use for the space that engenders the same kind of environment for community, respect and growth that the cafe did.”

An emotional response

Since the cafe’s closing, the corner of SMSU that once housed Food For Thought has been flooded with banners and signs where former customers and passersby have
left messages.

Some of the posters on the doors of Food For Thought convey messages of sadness and loss over the closing.

“We need our communal space!” states one message.

“For three years this was the only place on campus I could eat while recovering from cancer—this is the only place on campus with healthy, good food,” states another.

While a majority of the responses share shock or grief, or recount fond memories of the customers who would frequent Food For Thought, some take on a frustrated and aggressive tone, expressing rage over the shutdown.

“We will not be free until the last SALP admin is hung with the entrails of the last PSU bureucrat [sic],” states one of the more hostile notes.

The personal contact information for Hamilton was also written alongside messages urging readers to call and express their frustration with the shutdown of Food
For Thought.

“I’ve only really gotten one call, so that was why I understand the emotional aspect of it. And because I only got one call, I didn’t go down and scribble it out. But it didn’t feel very good. It’s on the big poster, you can see it down there,” Hamilton said.

“I think that’s a part of the student process. It went to voicemail, so the caller didn’t identify herself and said that she was concerned. And her question was, she would like information on why Food For Thought students were laid off before they could get unemployment, which doesn’t make sense because you can’t get unemployment until you’re laid off. So I didn’t call her back,” Hamilton said.

In an interview with the Vanguard, collective members of Food For Thought requested that the contact information of those involved with the decision to close the cafe be part of this story, including Shattuck and Jundt. The Vanguard declined to include this information.

In a statement released by Food For Thought on their Facebook page, members included the office phone numbers of Shattuck and Hamilton, asking supporters to direct questions and comments regarding the closure to them.

Community space lost

Emotions surrounding the shutdown run high, and many agree that the closing of the cafe signifies a loss of vital community space for the university.

“I’ve worked at PSU since 1995 and I was here when Food For Thought came to be, and I recognize what an important community space has been provided by Food For Thought over the years, and how valued that space is by students, staff and faculty,” Toppe said. “And I think we’re all very committed to figuring out how to make sure that the campus still has that resource”

“For them to put this in a legal perspective and essentially cut the head off like the community foundation, that I would argue gives it that image, is plain hypocrisy,” Lopez said. “Whoever makes those types of decisions doesn’t really understand the school and doesn’t even understand their own values as a sustainable school. It’s bullshit.”

Due to the ongoing investigation, the fate of the Food For Thought space is in limbo.

“After terminating us, they gave a vague kind of picture that we would have the opportunity to help rebuild Food For Thought, but not as employees, as volunteers, which directly violates our mission statement that we do not do unpaid labor because we think it’s unfair,” White said.

With the cafe’s closure, SALP is rethinking the level of responsibility and oversight advisers have.

“In the past, the adviser has trusted the students to do the work and stay within budget. We have intervened when there were egregious policy violations, but otherwise Food For Thought was responsible for handling the budget, overseeing the cafe and handling internal issues. We are now rethinking that hands-off advising style and have learned a lot from this disappointing situation. In the future, we would trust the students, but be much more involved and engaged throughout,” Shattuck said.