Much of public attention on the University of Michigan's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan has focused on the classroom, administration or an incendiary stream of bias incidents, but students in East Quad are engaging with an even more every day component of the plan: food.
Towards the end of last semester, the Hall Council of East Quad Residence Hall canceled an international food event due to complications and concerns around cultural sensitivity within Michigan Dining. The event now serves as a linchpin in changing the building's attitudes towards food service and inclusion.
Abeng Multicultural Council Co-Chair Josiah Walker, an LSA freshman, said the Hall Council director and resident advisers felt it was necessary to halt the event.
“(Michigan) Dining took it upon themselves to plan the food they were going to serve, but what happened is they ended up mismatching the dishes,” Walker said. “They would call a special dish ‘Indian food’ even though that food could be found throughout Southeast Asia. The RAs caught wind of this and complained to the Hall Director and the Hall Director ended up shutting it down before they let the Multicultural Council know about it.”
Walker said he understood why people did not want to go through with the event. He realized incorrect labeling — such as calling a multiethnic dish “Indian” —could result in the exclusion of members from other countries in Southeast Asia.
“If MDining would have went through with it, then it would have looked bad for students who are from Southeast Asia who (would have) walked in and said, ‘Oh, I have this in my country,’ or ‘This is not limited to India,’” Walker said. “I wasn’t upset about (cancelling the event) because the reasoning behind it made sense.”
As a member of a multicultural council, Walker emphasized the importance of thoroughly planning events to involve other nationalities so all cultures are accurately represented.
“It’s not easy to push for multicultural events because you have to take a whole bunch of factors into consideration,” Walker said. “You have to make sure you aren’t offending anyone and make sure you’re being respective of different sensitivities.”
MDining Marketing Coordinator Elliott Rains said he appreciated the feedback from various East Quad community members.
“I know that (MDining) did have some meetings with RAs, and they did have some concerns that it would not be authentic,” Rains said. “We always want to be respective of the cultures in the room and the cultures that we serve on a day-to-day basis, so anytime people bring to us they feel they’re culture is being misrepresented, we want to hear their concerns. I think that was an instance that happened where we have some RAs and some housing staff members bring their concerns to us.”
However, since this incident, East Quad has made increased efforts to serve quality international food. For example, this semester, the unit partnered with the Office of Student Life to begin talks around including an improved selection of Middle Eastern and North African food in dining halls.
Rains explained while the increased efforts to serve were not in direct response to the incident in East Quad, MDining is aiming to ensure a more inclusive campus environment and worked to improve its menus and provide authentic food from different areas of the world.
“It was not necessarily a reactionary measure; it was something that we have been working on for a while,” Rains said. “We have internal trainings that we do and external trainings that we do. I think it just kind of compliments the theme that this is in an incident where people had concerns, and we’re working on this at the same time and as we’re doing these trainings we are getting better at representing people’s cultures and bringing people recipes that are authentic to their culture.”
Director of Student Engagement Keith Soster said MDining’s learning objectives when researching multicultural foods include understanding the history of the food, identifying ingredients and spices used, practicing cooking techniques common in ethnic dishes and analyzing existing recipes. He also underscored MDining’s commitment to DEI initiatives through food.
“Researching and training around international authentic cuisine speaks to the DEI work that we are all embracing on campus, and we want to serve food that students want and, because we have a diverse community, we are listening,” Soster said.
Along with incorporating student feedback, Rains explained MDining is working with chefs who specialize in international cuisines to increase the cultural food authenticity. Most recently, MDining has worked with a chef from India and a chef from Japan. The dining program has also worked with students to create halal, plant-based and kosher menus.
“One thing we’re really trying to emphasize this year is bringing in different perspectives on a lot of different things,” Rains said. “So last month we brought in a chef from India to work on some of our Indian recipes, and we also brought in a chef from Japan to work on some of our Asian and Japanese restaurants as well. You can bring in as many chefs as you want, and I think our chefs are learning a lot in these training processes. But it’s the student feedback we get that is ever evolving.”
Though MDining is making an effort to improve the international foods available to students, Walker discussed how the exclusive partnership between MDining and various campus buildings can be restrictive in terms of what food students can cater for cultural events they want to hold.
“In order to get food, we have to get it from MCatering or from MDining. You can’t order outside food, and it is to my understanding that they do not offer an incredible array of cultural foods,” Walker said. “The few that they do offer, they often don’t cook it well, so natives of respective countries and cultures complain about it.”
East Quad Hall Council member Lauren Lee, an LSA sophomore, noted MDining’s willingness to work with students and take feedback into account in response to catering complications.
In an email to The Daily, Lee wrote she was pleased with MDining’s effort to provide cultural food.
“MDining still served dishes that Hall Council requested and really took our feedback about this event,” Lee said. “I really appreciated them for this because we chose this theme and we chose a list of countries we wanted to see represented.”
Moving forward, Walker emphasized how he hoped more thoughtful research would be conducted both on the part of multicultural councils and MDining to ensure an inclusive environment.
“I think that people should do their research – both multicultural councils and dining,” Walker said. They should do their research to make sure that the food that they’re providing under the name of the culture they’re providing is accurate and inclusive.”