The foods we eat and, indeed, our nutrition, are guided by our socio-cultural upbringing and surroundings. The differences are apparent in the nuances in the bases from which food is prepared depending on the region of the world. Nigerian food, for example, often consists of a palm oil, red and green pepper base, while Sri Lankan food consists of cumin and coriander, among other things. Even in these nations, there are vast differences in food preparation depending on the society, and it is important not to homogenize it.
These foods are often considered wholesome and sometimes sacred in certain communities. That is why it is profoundly dissatisfying and shameful that the Sodexo, the main food provider for the Ithaca College Dining and Catering services, fails not only to cater to the needs of people who identify as international students, but also to create a structured process for meal plan and event exemptions on cultural bases.
Last spring, the college’s African Students Association was earnestly preparing for the first annual Africa Week celebration. The final event in this week-long unveiling and deconstruction of mythical and ahistorical notions surrounding the continent of Africa was the ASA Banquet. Though a success, what happened in the background of the banquet was deeply problematic.
The executive board of the ASA had several meetings with Campus Center and Events Services in which they made the argument that, in order to preserve the wholesomeness of their native foods, they needed to have an approved outside caterer prepare the foods for the banquet, something that organizations in colleges like Syracuse University, Calvin College and American University can do. The rejection of ASA’s request culminated in a night with decent food at best and a Nigerian soup called egusi, or melon seed, being served instead as pumpkin seed soup.
This experience was mirrored at the beginning of the school year. A group of international students were shuffled from place to place in their quest to petition for a meal plan exemption. Aside from including culture reasons in their requests, these students also indicated health issues, such as bloatedness and headaches, after eating dining hall food, all of which was documented in notes by medical and nutritional professionals. The students met with an official at Sodexo, who belittled them with patronizing “suggestions” to compel them to remain on the meal plan, essentially challenging documents written by doctors and nutritionists.
It is cynical for a business manager to challenge a student who understands best what is needed to fuel his or her body. The request was ultimately rejected after a “review” by an unknown committee, which did not provide any rationale for its decision. This process created a feeling of disrespect, dehumanization and utter disregard for the cultures of these international students, which runs parallel to the college’s commitment to being an educational institution that “values diversity and promotes cross-cultural understanding.”
Indeed, it is a symptom of the college’s true posture toward internationals students: make us look diverse and take pictures of us, and then send us back home. We, the concerned international students of this school, will not sit idly by while our dignity is negotiated within a school-industrial complex boardroom. We therefore ask that we be accorded due respect and dignity in order for us to preserve our rights to control our health. We simply ask that a practical meal plan and catering exemption process be devised by Sodexo-Ithaca College in collaboration with a group of international students and implemented for all who deem it imperative for medical and cultural reasons.