No Free Lunch

UCSB Lunch Group Claims Religious Discrimination

by Ethan Stewart

In a sea of fast food and meals made for students on the go, the UCSB Bhakti Yoga Club (BYC) has been providing faculty, students, and staff with a spiritually centered, delicious, and healthy twice-weekly lunch alternative since the mid 1990s. However, the Wednesday and Thursday afternoon campus gatherings — which often drew in excess of 100 hungry people — were ordered to cease earlier this year by college administrators claiming that the group was in violation of campus and county regulations governing clubs and how they may serve or sell food. “What we had was a wonderful and open gathering of people with vegetarian food, music, and people from all walks of life talking with one another. … We are being discriminated against, and now it rests on some lawyer’s desk,” said the club’s founder, Sarvatma Das, earlier this week. But to hear UCSB dean of student life associate Carolyn Buford tell it, the current situation is simply a matter of adhering to the law. “It is a food safety issue. We had an understanding with Bhakti Yoga, and essentially that agreement was being violated. … I’m just trying to make sure that we follow the law.”

The controversy in question stems from the Indian stew, organic salad, vegan almond dressing, whole wheat German bread, and assorted teas and organic juices that Das and his wife prepared themselves and served to club members at the lunch meetings as a form of prasadam, a Hindu practice of sharing sanctified food with others as a kind of prayer offering. According to the university, the BYC — which also offers off-campus Sunday night meetings complete with meditation, readings from the Upanishads (part of the Hindu holy scripture), philosophical debate, and more health-conscious vegetarian food — is not permitted to serve food as often as it did or in the manner it did.

This isn’t the first time the club has clashed with administrators over its lunch-hour gatherings. In 1999, a similar shutdown lasted for nine months while the BYC hammered out a compromise with the Office of Student Life. Under that agreement, the BYC was able to resume its prasadam practice as long as members prepared the food in a county-certified kitchen and collected a $5 “membership” fee from attendees. But after county officials tipped off the school in late May that Das was doing the cooking at home, university officials ordered the lunchtime meetings to shut down. Also around this time, UCLA put the squeeze on a similar Bhakti lunch group on the Westwood campus. But Das and many of the BYC’s members past and present say the shutdown is just about money and violates their First Amendment rights. To them, the practice of prasadam is a religious — albeit delicious — endeavor that was upsetting some of the food vendors on campus because it offered such a cheap and healthy alternative. Defending his cooking and his club, Das objected that calling “it a health issue is wrong. Never in all our years has anyone complained or gotten sick.” He went on to say, “Literally, it’s like preventing the Catholics from giving the wafer because it’s not state-approved.”

As it stands now, the BYC and the University are at an impasse, with lawyers on both sides trying to reach a compromise. The school wants the club either to become an official retail vendor — entailing a lengthy and expensive permitting process — or to reshape its meeting to a “potluck” format in which 80 percent of all attendees bring a dish. To Das and company, this is unacceptable, as they consider it their First Amendment right to continue the religious lunches as they did previously. A potluck, they point out, would not be prasadam. In the meantime, the BYC has not met on campus since June and — while its off-campus meetings continue — its official UCSB club status has recently lapsed, making the return of Bhakti lunches to the UCSB campus unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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