Thinking about Food for Thought

I started my time here at PSU the same way many students do: unemployed, disconnected from the campus community and not at all interested in getting involved, until one day I stumbled upon the Food for Thought Cafe in the basement of the Smith Memorial Center. I happened to have a copy of my culinary resume on me, so I submitted it. A couple of weeks later I was on staff in the cafe.

I no longer work there, but still go in to eat and socialize almost daily. During my time as an employee for Food For Thought I learned a lot about Portland State in general, but more specifically about how Food for Thought Cafe operates. Even though I normally write reviews of the places I eat, I was concerned that my connection to FFT would tinge my opinions with conflicts of interest so I decided to conduct interviews with some of the staff there and to share their insights as well as my own observations about the organization.

Food for Thought is an experiment

FFT was conceptualized, organized, started, maintained and is still run entirely by students here at PSU. It was started originally to show that increased recycling and composting were feasible options for food service on campus. That having been accomplished, FFT now focuses on providing a local, seasonal and healthy dining option on campus as well as educating the Portland State community about issues concerning sustainable food systems.

Food for Thought is a student group

FFT is organized under SALP, just like all of the other student groups. While FFT is currently the only student group that operates a business or takes in a large amount of revenue, they also receive a portion of their budget from student fees.

The cafe is only one part of the larger organization

FFT offers a variety of educational events and programs. This month, they are co-sponsoring an event on sustainable food systems on Feb. 23, and “Grains of Change: a fair-trade Thai farmer tour” on Feb. 24. They are also currently looking to hire their next educational coordinator, a stipend position. A Board of Directors guides FFT, which is largely separate from the day-to-day running of the cafe. Members of the board are all volunteers and have the final responsibility for the health of the organization. Any student is welcome to join the board and anybody at all may sit in on their meetings. There is also a menu development committee, which is responsible for developing new dishes to be placed on the menu. You can get information about joining any of these groups or on the events at the cafe.

Food for Thought is staffed completely by students

Some of the people who work in the cafe have prior professional food service experience. Most do not. The cooks, baristas, baker and dishwashers ?” everybody who works at FFT- goes to class and does their homework, just like you.

You are already a member of Food for Thought

According to FFT’s bylaws, on file at SALP, every student at Portland State is already a member of the Food for Thought student group. They take the comment cards filled out by customers extremely seriously, usually discussing each one, since their customers are also members.

It wouldn’t feel right if there was no discussion at all of the food. The fact that the restaurant is completely staffed by part-time employees means that there are a number of people who are responsible for preparing and serving the food. There is no autocratic kitchen dictator to regulate the quality of the food ?” it is up to each individual to be sure that the dishes they serve are up to par. The only problem is that each individual has different standards for what “up to par” actually means. As frustrating as this can be for the customers, it also makes it extremely difficult for the cooks to anticipate the flavor that each customer is expecting. Most often this manifests as the absence of salt, pepper or heavy spicing when the food is served. This makes it possible for the customer to season it to his or her own tastes ?” something most people are not used to doing. Often customers don’t realize that they have the option to add salt and spices so they end up consuming bland food.

If you don’t like seasoning your own food, the pr퀨͌�t-a-manger (ready to eat) options are generally a safe choice. The soups are usually excellent, as are the sandwiches and salads. Some dishes can take an extremely long time to prepare in the outdated, all-electric kitchen. If you are in a hurry, asking the counter person for suggestions is a good idea.

Most recently, I have enjoyed an outstanding borscht, a terrific tempeh reuben and quite satisfactory vegan lasagna at FFT. The empanadas and tamales are made by hand and are purchased from local producers. The tamales are generally unsatisfactory, usually large lumps of masa with very little filling which is pretty bland, as a rule, except for the spicy lentil. The empanadas, happily, are a different story, with terrific flavor and a good amount of nutrition for their cost.

Finally, FFT has the best coffee in the near-campus area, hands down. Connoisseurs will know the Stumptown name already but you don’t have to be in the know to appreciate expertly roasted, organic, shade grown, fair-trade coffee at a buck a mug and only 50 cents for refills. The coffee usually pairs well with the excellent baked goods. Most of the cookies and all of the muffins are made in-house. I especially recommend the harvest muffins.

In the near future, you can expect FFT to expand further, as their dining room can get quite crowded during rushes. Expansion will necessarily bring even further change to this dynamic organization and I for one look forward to seeing how they adapt.