UCI’s food services questioned after ‘MLK Holiday Special’

IRVINE — On Martin Luther King Day, a UC Irvine cafeteria served the “MLK Holiday Special,” which consisted of chicken and waffles.

Since the meal was served behind a sign board announcing the special, black students have been discussing the judgment of food services staff, some saying they played up a black culinary stereotype, possibly inadvertently.

Black Student Union Co-chairman Ricardo Sparks posted an image of the meal on his Facebook page.

“We just want to know what MLK had to do with chicken and waffles,” Sparks said Wednesday.

The issue gained steam after the OC Weekly published a story about it, making reference to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.

UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said that the chef had consulted with black members of his staff before preparing the meal. Lawhon told the Los Angeles Times that the chef will not face disciplinary action.

Lawhon said that because Jan. 17 was a holiday, not all the supervisors were on staff that day. She said the MLK meal and related sign were in poor taste, but did not believe there were any ill intentions.

“The actual idea was meant to be supportive and provide something fun for students in the commons,” she said.

Sparks did not want to jump to conclusions, but also said he doesn’t want to skirt the issue.

“We want it to be an educational moment,” Sparks said. “I want to give people the benefit of the doubt … that they didn’t know it was offensive.”

Jade Wheaton, a member of the BSU, thinks the action isn’t bringing the community any closer.

“It makes [us] feel unwelcomed,” she said. “It just wasn’t OK. People are supposed to be educated and open-minded about all the different cultures on campus.”

Although there have been rumors circulating regarding a boycott, Wheaton put them to rest and said that BSU does not plan to boycott Pippin, the dining hall that served the fried chicken and waffles. Wheaton said that would not make sense because so many students have paid in advance to eat in the dining halls.

Most of Pippin’s diners are freshmen, some of whom seemed indifferent about the flap Wednesday afternoon.

“I think it’s just food,” said Eric Solis. “It doesn’t really matter.”

Richard Zhang compared the meal to stereotypical Asian meals that are served at UCI, such as fried rice.

However, some students were surprised by the judgment of the dinning hall staff.

“That’s pretty racist,” said student Caroline Forrester. “UCI is kind of weird like that.”

When asked to elaborate, she said that she had seen the dining commons pair stereotypical foods with ethnic groups before.

Sparks wrote a letter to dining services and is planning to meet with school officials Tuesday. The African American studies and pre-med major is hoping situations that divide the student community do not continue.

“A good percentage of [black] students aren’t happy,” he said. “The administration isn’t doing anything to improve the climate.”

Katherine Tate, a professor of political science and African American studies, summed up the issue in an e-mail.

“I think in the spirit of MLK’s love for humanity, we shouldn’t attach too much importance to a meal of chicken and waffles called the ‘MLK special’,” Tate wrote. “I suppose it was a clumsy effort by staff to give some recognition to the Martin Luther King holiday. It’s not as teachable a moment as say, racial profiling by the police.”

UCI Food Services did not provide comment.