Food For Thought appeals to reopen

Food For Thought, a student-run cafe and community space, may reopen within the 2014–15 academic year, pending an approval process. The projected opening date, if that approval is gained, is Jan. 5. If not, then the cafe is unlikely to reopen until the following academic year, if at all.

Doors have been opened

The space in the basement of Smith Memorial Student Union that formerly housed Food For Thought has been dark and empty since the closure of the cafe. Now, after communications between the FFT advisory board and the Student Fee Committee, rent for the space has been approved through December.

Currently, it is open as a community lounge and study space, open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Anyone in the PSU community is welcome to share the high capacity room, though the cafe itself remains closed and no food or drink is being served.

Work history

Food For Thought’s chance to reopen is largely due to ongoing advocacy and efforts over the summer by an advisory board consisting mostly of students.

The members include Travis Gothard, a community member with experience in restaurant management; Adama Goudiaby, a senior PSU student majoring in management and leadership; Virginia Luka, a PSU graduate student and interim adviser in Student Activities and Leadership Programs; Haley White, a former FFT collective member and worker; and Tanya Murray, graduate student and food systems coordinator for the Sustainability Leadership Center.

Director of SALP Aimee Shattuck and Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Conduct and Community Standards Domanic Thomas have also given guidance to the team in the process of reopening.

Leading the process as co-chairs of the FFT advisory board have been Hayden Leach, operations director of ASPSU, and Angela Hamilton, the coordinator of Student-Operated Services.

In order to reopen during this academic year, the advisory board must get approval from several stakeholders—SALP, Student Conduct, Student Fee Committee and the Smith Advisory Board.

Planning for reopening is divided into two phases, with the advisory board nearing completion of the first phase: the completion and approval of a business plan.

The second phase can begin once the plan receives approval. Leach and Hamilton will be addressing the Student Fee Committee in a second meeting planned for Friday at 8 a.m.

Over the summer, the advisory board formed working groups to address four areas of development deemed necessary for the student-operated service to succeed and thrive. These recommendations established by the groups in these specific areas inform the creation of the business plan.

A budget working group focused on analyzing the market and assessing the financial history of the cafe. A food group met to plan a general menu, pricing and sourcing.

Recommendations on personnel practices were made by a third group, who considered the organizational structure and learning outcomes of student workers. A fourth group turned to marketing, outreach and inclusion in an effort to promote the effective use of campus resources and form connections on campus.

After several meetings over the summer, these groups made their final recommendations to the board.

“At the end of August most of the work on the business plan had been completed and we disbanded the working groups. The rest is just wordsmithing,” Leach said. “Once the business plan is approved, Food For Thought will have the green light to reopen. Then we can focus on hiring.”

Looking back at the closure

The cafe abruptly closed in March, and multiple groups, including SALP, Student Conduct and the Smith Advisory Board, placed sanctions against the student-operated service that collectively staffed and managed its operations. The administrators who decided upon the cafe's ultimate closure cited an ongoing budget deficit, cash-handling and record keeping concerns.

Leona Kindermann, a senior anthropology major and former collective member of Food For Thought, described the experience as painful. Kindermann also saw the work that the cafe did through fulfillment of its mission statement and collective management structure as political, and wondered about connections between the closure and other recent changes on campus.

“I know Chiron Studies got shut down when it started being recognized as too political, and luckily, we organized and got that back. It did feel weird that the closure happened right in the heat of one of the most recent struggles we’ve had on campus with the faculty bargaining,” Kindermann said. “After the walkout, everyone came to FFT to talk about it. A lot of people were asking me if those things were connected, and I honestly couldn’t say no, but I couldn’t say yes, either.”

Whether or not there is any connection between the cafe as a hub for student organizing and its closure, Kindermann observed a pattern that she perceives as ongoing.

“The university is doing that, they're trying to squash out our voices, they're trying to depoliticize. I can't help seeing it everywhere, and I can't help make connections with the proposed deputization [of campus safety] as well,” Kindermann said.

Angela Hamilton, director of Student-Operated Services and co-chair of the FFT advisory board, found budgetary issues, collective decision-making and high labor costs had likely negatively affected the cafe's financial situation.

For example, “The employee meal plan resulted in a lost revenue of $20,000,” Hamilton said.

Preserving an institution

Despite differences in opinion about what happened, why and how to proceed, those who have been working toward a reopening share a priority in preserving and passing on aspects of Food For Thought's legacy and mission statement.

“In the positive, it will have a really good relationship with SALP and the institutional memory will be preserved,” Kindermann said, noting that she won't be able to be re-employed by FFT because of her impending spring graduation. “Hopefully they'll preserve the right things.”

“If it were to run the same way it was running last year, and the same things were to happen, it would be a gamble. But we would have a new structure, a new coordinator, new leads, and anyone who worked there before would have to reapply,” Hamilton said. “There would hopefully be some institutional memory in terms of the values that carry through, but at the same time, it could be completely different. We're hoping it is, because if it isn't, then we've failed.”

Both Hamilton and Leach explain the cafe's newly articulated mission statement is similar, if not exactly the same.

“Affordable, sustainable, organic—those components are still going to be a part of the cafe,” Leach said.

Facing change

While the cafe will still bear the same name and include many aspects of its past incarnations, certain elements of its structure and operations have had to be changed in order to be approved.

One of those elements is the model of collective management and decision making that FFT had been utilizing.

“That whole collective model will not work within this model here, because time has been cut out of this as a way of saving costs,” Leach said.

Hamilton added, “I think a good word is that it has to be much more efficient than it ever was. Our community partner on the board worked for Burgerville, and we got a lot of good industry advice from him.”

Yet she admits efficiency and labor weren't issues isolated within the operations of FFT.

“I don't want to paint [FFT] as being terrible before. There are plenty of jobs students have where you don't have to work very much, but it's not going to be able to happen that way anymore," Hamilton said.

Upon reopening, the cafe will also be operating with a minimal staff and menu. Elyse Cogburn, sustainability affairs director for ASPSU who has worked closely with the advisory board, said that it is a strategic decision to ensure longevity.

“We're trying to create a good, solid foundation. That doesn't mean we can't expand and grow, but that's why it's so bare and ‘meatless’ right now,” Cogburn said.

It is unclear whether the cafe will remain a vegetarian, meat-free space, as it had been in the past. Policy might be altered if it were to be decided that an environment that allowed meat would be more inclusive to students.

Kindermann was critical of such a choice, citing the mission of the cafe and environmental concerns as reasons for her position.

“There are huge problems with the meat industry, and the food industry in general in this country. And from a sustainability standpoint, eating meat is not sustainable,” Kindermann said.

Inclusivity is important to Kindermann as well, and she emphasized the student-oriented nature of the community that existed there, though recognized it could be seen as a niche environment.

Overall, Kindermann said that “it was welcoming to me. And I’m glad going forward there is a strong focus on inclusivity and accessibility.”

Other goals going forward include elements of a five-year plan that considers how FFT can address campus food insecurity through partnerships and offering donations. If the cafe does reopen, students can expect a launch party and other promotions nearer to January.