A bustling kitchen has always been typical for Sharpe Refectory dining staff as they prepare meals for the students who pass through each day. But the chefs in the kitchen on a September morning — meticulously frosting carrot cake and braising chicken — remarked on how much had changed in just one year. Since June, a newly-installed air conditioning system hums behind the scenes, tucked away in mechanical rooms and ceiling vents, invisible at the surface level but felt throughout the facility.
The installation of air conditioning follows complaints of unsafe working conditions in the Ratty due to extreme heat in the summer months, The Herald previously reported. During the summer of 2017, the Student Labor Alliance began campaigning for the installation of air conditioning in the Ratty, and students rallied around the cause over the next academic year.
The installation of air conditioning is “unequivocally a good thing,” said SLA member Hal Triedman ’20.5. “It would be irresponsible of me to say that student activism around this issue has played an overly-deterministic role, or has completely changed the narrative,” Triedman said. “But it would also be irresponsible of me to say that it didn’t have anything to do with what happened.”
Initial planning for installing air conditioning in the Ratty began in 2015, wrote Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. SLA gave the issue more notoriety by starting a campus-wide conversation about working conditions in the Ratty, and their demands “aligned with the final steps of infrastructure improvements and physical installation of A/C,” Clark wrote.
SLA’s campaign was “driven by … validating the concerns” of dining staff, said Noa Machover ’19.5. With the consent of the staff, SLA posted flyers across campus, held two community meetings with dining workers and met with administrators, she said.
The University installed temporary cooling towers in the Ratty in the summers of 2017 and 2018. But SLA members said that the towers did not offer a permanent enough solution and that the University had a responsibility to invest in the wellbeing of dining services staff.
Rabbit Hoffinger, who oversees meal preparation in the Ratty and other dining facilities, said that the addition of air conditioning this summer has been a remarkable improvement from previous grueling conditions. Without proper air conditioning mechanisms, the kitchen feels about 12 degrees hotter than the outside temperature on any given day, making operations in the facility unbearable without it, he said. After many hot summers in the Ratty, Hoffinger “didn’t believe it” when he was told that the dining hall would receive air conditioning.
Christina Smith, who manages the bakery in the Ratty, said that the air conditioning has had a positive impact not only on the morale of her fellow workers, but also on the kitchen products themselves. For example, Smith noted that baked goods absorb moisture and react negatively to the humidity in the kitchen. Like Hoffinger, Smith was in disbelief when she found out about plans to install air conditioning, which she added was a rarity in most kitchens.
Dining Services originally sought to implement air conditioning before this summer, said George Barboza, director of dining operations. The Ratty was built in 1951 before the creation of summer academic and athletic programs on campus, so the facility was not built with the summer heat in mind. Design work for the air conditioning system was completed in fall 2018, and installation took place during winter 2018 and spring 2019.
“It’s about time,” Machover said. “I’m glad that they did it, but there’s so much time (when) it should have happened.”