A Year Later, Students Reflect on Downstein’s Racist Black History Month Meal

Aramark, responsible for a racist meal served at Downstein last year, is one of two food service providers bidding for a contract with the university.


(via Wikimedia Commons)

Meghna Maharishi, News Editor

Weinstein Passport Dining Hall made national headlines last February after serving red Kool-Aid, watermelon-flavored water, collard greens, ribs and cornbread for Black History Month. The meal, advertised by NYU Dining as a celebration of the occasion, instead brought criticism to the university by playing into racist stereotypes.

Before this incident, NYU had already initiated a bidding process for a new food service provider after Lipton Dining Hall received a poor grade on their health inspection. Once the meal was served, NYU and Aramark — the university’s current food service provider — faced backlash from students for the racial insensitivity.

In a Facebook post from last year, CAS junior Nia Harris said she contacted NYU dining services and NYU deans over her frustrations with the meal.

In 2018 I literally had to explain why displaying watermelon and [Kool-Aid] in celebration of Black History Month was not only racially insensitive but just ignorant,” the post reads.

A day later, President Andrew Hamilton issued a statement condemning the meal and the employees involved in the incident.

“[The meal] was inexcusably insensitive,” Hamilton said. “That error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies made to a student who asked Aramark staff on site how the choices were made. In response, Aramark has suspended the director of Weinstein dining, is investigating how this happened, [and] will be putting in place sensitivity training for staff.”

As a result, Aramark suspended and eventually fired Downstein’s General Manager of Operations Tim Hoben. In May, Hoben sued the university and Aramark for wrongful termination. The lawsuit is ongoing, and in a New York Magazine profile, Hoben said that he believed Aramark scapegoated him.

“In my opinion, someone was trying to cover their own butt at some point,” Hoben said to New York Magazine.

A year later, some students still feel confused by what happened and how the university and Aramark handled the situation.

Tisch sophomore Owen O’Leary was at Weinstein on the day of the incident and was surprised by NYU Dining’s choice to put out the meal.

“Everyone was shocked,” O’Leary said. “Everyone was tweeting at NYU Dining, but no one was responding. I also saw it in Teen Vogue and have heard nothing from NYU about it. I also didn’t know that they were even evaluating or changing the [food service provider].”

Tisch junior Aarlene Vielot didn’t see the meal as unexpected, but hopes NYU replaces Aramark in the bidding process.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Vielot said. “NYU is not the most racially sensitive university and they pull many little stunts like that. I was surprised that many people were surprised. I think it just goes to show that NYU needs more people making these decisions. Aramark has been slipping, so they should be replaced.”

Liberal Studies first-year Nasya Miles heard of the situation after she was admitted to the university last year.

“I thought that NYU was really socially aware, but then I got here, and the longer I stay here, the less it surprises me that something like this happened,” Miles said. “It has to be a team behind [the meal], curating it. They all sat there and thought it was an OK idea. You could see the menu online, and no one saw it before. I don’t believe that.”

In the months following the incident, student activists have protested Aramark’s ties to federal and private prisons as well as the bidding process for NYU’s next service provider, which is currently between Aramark and Compass Group. In December, the two providers made their presentations to the bidding committee, and the the group is on track to give its input to a recommendation committee by March.

Email Meghna Maharishi at [email protected]