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Food fight between Rutgers, students over hunger drive

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - They called it "Operation Robin Hood," and like its namesake of yore, it was intended to aid the needy.

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - They called it "Operation Robin Hood," and like its namesake of yore, it was intended to aid the needy.

Concerned about hunger in New Brunswick, a group of Rutgers University students mounted a campaign to donate extra meals from the campus meal-service plan to a soup kitchen and others in the city.

Less than a week after it started, however, the venture has devolved into controversy, pitting the students - and the graduate who organized it - against university administrators.

The disagreement, which at one point involved Rutgers police, has resulted in a new policy limiting the number of takeout meals at campus dining halls. Previously, students were allowed two takeout meals per visit. Now, they can have only one at a time.

Rutgers officials say the student group's effort, while well-meaning, did not take into account food-safety concerns and a prohibition on soliciting in dining halls. Officials also noted that Rutgers already donates significantly to the soup kitchen in question, Elijah's Promise.

What's more, the meals donated to Elijah's Promise never made it to those Operation Robin Hood was intended to help.

Lisanne Finston, the soup kitchen's director, said Elijah's Promise had a policy against offering pre-prepared meals, because of food-safety worries.

"We had no guarantees when it was prepared, how it was prepared," Finston said. "We have to watch out for contamination."

In the end, she said, the soup kitchen's volunteer staff members ate the donated food.

Finston was quick to praise Rutgers, saying the university has worked with Elijah's Promise for more than 20 years and donated thousands of dollars worth of food handled safely for preparation in the soup kitchen.

Rutgers graduate Charlie Kratovil organized the campaign, quickly drawing support from students. In less than a week, Kratovil said, the Operation Robin Hood page on Facebook has gained more than 750 members.

The campaign's philosophy seemed simple enough: Donate meals that students are already paying for but are not using.

It is not quite that simple, though, because of the way meal plans are priced.

Greg Blimling, the university's vice president of student affairs, said most students bought a 210-meal plan, but eat, on average, 147 meals per academic year. Rutgers prices the meal plan on the 147-meal average, charging roughly $10 to $11 per meal, Blimling said.

Were students to donate unused meals en masse, it could drive up the plan's cost.

There also were worries that food could go bad if not delivered quickly enough, perhaps causing someone to get sick.

Kratovil said that the group's members would continue their mission next week and that they had secured a permit allowing them to stand outside dining hall entrances.