About 75 University of Pennsylvania students gathered in the blustery cold Monday for what they called a “solidarity” gathering to support workers at Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons, who said they were told they could not make any special meals in honor of Black History Month this year.
Troy Harris, a longtime cook at the dining hall, said Bon Appétit, the dining hall management, had recently informed him and other workers that the dining hall didn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of institutions that had come under fire for serving stereotypical “soul food” meals featuring watermelon, Kool-Aid, and fried chicken.
“Last year, we just acknowledged the work of a black chef in Washington, D.C., who is known for his kosher recipes,” Harris told the crowd gathered outside “the Compass” on Locust Walk near 37th Street.
Penn spokesperson Barbara A. Lea-Kruger said that for years, chefs created menus to celebrate cultural events, but this year, “we took a different approach in light of what we saw happening in other universities where some students found the menus that were being served to be insensitive and stereotypical.”
“The consensus was to continue to serve food to meet the dietary needs of the students, for example, fish on Fridays during Lent or special Passover meals,” she said in an email. “But until we met with the student groups on campus to get their input, we should pause our celebrations of cultural dates (such as Black History Month or Chinese New Year).”
Recognizing the disappointment of some staff and students, the university plans to have a dinner this week highlighting famous black chefs, she said.
Elijah Wingate, a dining-hall worker, told the gathering the discontent has been simmering since Jan. 21 — Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday.
“We had to work that day even though classes were canceled,” Wingate said. But there was no acknowledgment that it was a holiday for King. “We see them celebrate all these other holidays; it seemed like they should have celebrated for MLK Day, too,” he said.
Before workers arrived, students held signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Celebrate Black History,” and “Students Support Workers.”
Erik Vargas, 20, a physics major from Texas, said that beyond the Black History Month issue, students were concerned that the staffers “work very hard, for long hours and poverty wages.”
But the dining-hall staffers who took turns at the bullhorn emphasized that they loved their jobs at Falk Dining Hall. They also talked about feeling a strong bond with students they serve every day.
“Love has no color,” Harris told the students. He described being treated warmly by the students and staffers at Penn Hillel.
One student came up and hugged Wingate. “We spend more time with you guys than we do with our families,” she said.
Both students and workers were careful to describe the event as a “gathering” and not a protest or march.
Last Tuesday, a group of student organizations led by Penn Student Power posted an announcement about the event on Facebook and titled it, “What Happened to Black History Month?”
“It’s Black History Month, but being at Penn you wouldn’t know. … This is our response as students. We’re here to rise and resist the erasure of black history,” the announcement began, urging student organizations across campus to support by “standing in solidarity” with dining-hall workers.
Some students said there was a general sense that the university as a whole had not done much to observe Black History Month, except for a week of activities by UMOJA, an organization representing black students.
After the Facebook post went up, students pointed out that Bon Appétit told the Daily Pennsylvanian that it plans to have a special Black History Month celebration by Thursday, the last day of February.
In addition to Penn Student Power, other student groups joining the action included Penn for Immigrant Rights; Fossil Free Penn; Penn Lambda; SOUL, an African American group; Penn Hillel; Penn First; Penn Socialists; MEChA, a Mexican American group; and Radical South Asian Collective.
Janine Liu, one of the organizers, said the university and Bon Appétit tried to have Monday’s gathering canceled. Then she showed an email about “Fabulous February Events.”’
The email noted that dining halls across the campus would acknowledge events this month, including Israeli Shabbat on Feb. 8, Quaker Kitchen on Feb. 13, and Tasty Tuesday on Feb. 12.