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Jewish Journal

UCLA dining halls open doors to kosher meals

by Celia Soudry

November 1, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Bruin Plus participant Yitzi Wolf holding a kosher meal

Bruin Plus participant Yitzi Wolf holding a kosher meal

Getting by on prepackaged kosher sandwiches or salads is now a thing of the past for Jewish students at UCLA. For the first time, UCLA is offering hot kosher dinners Mondays through Thursdays as part of the meal plan for dorm residents. Apart from the plan, students can buy lunches and receive free dinner on Friday nights at UCLA Hillel's The Shack (Students Hungry and Craving Kosher).

"Any community institution serving the general population should have a kosher meal plan," said director of UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller.

Seidler-Feller has been pushing for a kosher meal plan at UCLA since he came to campus more than 33 years ago.

"This can make UCLA a destination school for Jewishly conscious students," Seidler-Feller said.

The option of a kosher meal plan can be a major deciding factor as to which college observant high school graduates choose to attend, he said. Historically, Orthodox students have had only a weak presence in the UCLA Jewish community.

Eventually, Seidler-Feller would like to see the residential plan extended to lunches, as well, but for now he is happy the meals are on campus.

However, the kosher meal plans don't come cheap. In order to get the Bruin Plus Supplemental meal plan, available for use at Covel Commons and Hedrick residential restaurants, students pay an additional $423 on top of their regular quarterly housing and meal plan fees, which can range from $9,207 to $14,837.

The university will not subsidize the cost for students who prefer only to eat kosher, Seidler-Feller said.

Lunches at Hillel, catered by the Bistro Baguette Cafe, run from $4.99 to $7.99. Items available for lunch include hamburgers, salads, tuna salad, kabobs and rice. About 30 to 40 people eat lunch on a daily basis at Hillel, which has been serving freshly prepared meals since October 2006.

The dining halls on campus provide 23,000 meals for the general student population, mainly consisting of freshmen, while kosher meals, also catered by Bistro Baguette Cafe, amount to 30 daily. The meals are prepared at the BBC restaurant in Beverly Hills and brought to the dining halls for re-heating in the newly purchased kosher microwaves.

Vivian Hecht, a sophomore bio-engineering major at UCLA is one student who opted for the kosher meal plan.

"It has been really great," she said, explaining that the hot meals serve as a much better alternative to her typical dinner food -- salad and ice cream. She can now look forward to chowing down on protein, such as brisket, chicken salad, salmon and wraps with beans and meat. The food is "more than adequate," Hecht said.

However, many of Hecht's kosher-observant friends are not signed up for the plan this quarter because they either did not know about it in time or it was too expensive, she said. One of her friends, who does not keep kosher, will sign up for the Bruin Plus plan winter quarter simply because she thinks the food looks great.

Instead of cafeteria food, we get restaurant food, Hecht said. "The quality is better."

Bistro Baguette Cafe's head caterer Judith Boteach attributes the implementation of the program to Hillel students and staff.

Jewish attendance in the dining halls had previously been significantly lower, and the students suffered from that, Boteach added.

Jewish Student Union advocacy chair Ariel Hecht helped launch the kosher meal plan. "[Staff at] UCLA dining was incredible, in the way that they even listened to us and took a chance," said Hecht, a senior bio-engineering major who is also Vivian Hecht's brother.

Monique Powell, BBC's supervisor of the UCLA program, is enthusiastic to see a kosher presence on campus and hopes that the meal plan will attract Muslim students as well, because the food satisfies halal requirements. Vegan students and others with dietary restrictions, including the lactose intolerant, can also benefit from the meals, she said.

However, Powell said the dining staff had to learn a new language. "They had to learn a whole set of new rules," she said, including how to handle the meals properly.

The food is kept in separate kosher-only refrigerators in each dining hall.

The dining hall staff is instructed to hand the double-sealed kosher meals, covered with cardboard and recycled plastic, to the students. The students then break the kashrut seal and hand the food back to the members of the staff for re-heating.

Other colleges in the area have had mixed success with kosher meal plans.

USC tested out a kosher meal plan about four years ago. Jeff Miller, senior manager of hospitality at USC, said the plan only lasted one year because the demand was too low. "There was not broad enough participation," he said.

USC now offers students the option of kosher lunches and dinners daily from the caterer, Got Kosher? -- and the meals are included, without additional cost, in the regular student plan. The kitchen stocks up to 20 to 30 meals for kosher students, but only about 10 are requested daily.

The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is another institution to offer kosher food for students. Joel Weinberger, head kosher chef at Caltech, said the university has had a kosher kitchen for nine years. The lunches and dinners are included in the regular meal plan price. There are not many observant Jews at the small, private university, he said, so there are only 15 to 20 students who take advantage of the kosher food offered.

William J. Calder, associate director of operations at UCLA Hillel, plans to launch a UCLA Bruin Plus grant program for the winter quarter, whereby donors from the Jewish community would partially supplement the cost of the meal plan. The grant program would lower the price from $423 to $108, Calder said.

"The biggest concern for the students is the price point," he added.

For more information, visit Bruin Plus Supplemental Plan Menu

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