In contrast with Zeus’s “bright work areas and healthy local food choices” as advertised on its website, the Syracuse-orange haze and pre-packaged, microwaveable foods in Amit Bhatia Libe Cafe seem like what consumer theorist Alfred Marshall would call a package of inferior goods. But I suppose I resist the argument that Zeus is better than Libe because the justifications only consider the merits of one eatery over the other. Let’s not kid ourselves: Nowhere in the John M. Olin Library outside of free pizza on finals week will you find edible food. But that’s not the point.
Libe is where most of us have messed around since freshman year, before we were cool enough to discover Zeus. It’s a lively hub of collegiate activity. Where else on campus can you encounter the delightful oxymoron of a dehydrated “quinoa meal” or distract yourself during study breaks with friends in such close proximity to an academic workspace? It’s kind of a solidarity thing. You eagerly skip to Libe from the stacks for your study break to spend too much time ranting about the problem set, gossiping and snacking on single-pack Doritos.
By contrast, Temple of Zeus (to be henceforth affectionately denoted as Zoos or TOZ) is not a great place to mess around. Patrons are too busy pretentiously busying themselves and precariously sipping their soups. The atrium boasts a pristine, robust and authentic architecture unmatched by the hallmark plastic furnishings and grimy carpeting of Libe’s, which is soiled and well-worn from traffic and hooliganry. TOZ’s vibe is shiny and cute, but I’ve been in the upper echelon of higher-ed and around wealthy East Coast progressives long enough now that anything as shiny as Zeus’s marble slab tables feels disingenuous.
The core of the debate between two of the highest-traffic cafes on campus is not just an aesthetic concern: It is also an economic one. My once-a-week oat milk chai with a shot of almond syrup — light ice — sets me back $6.95. The first time I tasted the spicy, silky in-house brew, my eyes nearly rolled to the back of my head with the bittersweet dread of discovering an expensive new habit. It’s no question that the made-from-scratch foods and beverages in Zeus are better than the slop sold in Olin Library’s makeshift cafe — the chai in Libe comes from concentrate. A significant problem, though, is that Zoos does not accept BRBs while Libe does, making it more accessible to people on financial aid or without considerable disposable income. In a microcosmic analogy to the real world, Olin is a gas station snack aisle in a food desert and TOZ is Whole Foods.
My pushback against the popular belief that Zeus is better than Libe is not simply that one serves rich patrons and that the other serves average ones — that one is pretty and one is not. The prices themselves are not markedly disparate, especially when considering that TOZ sells food with actual nutritional value. But the argument that a negligible price difference is equal to accessibility is an inadvertently classist one, mainly because of Zeus’ no-BRBs stipulation. Yes, many Cornellians I know do appreciate and frequent both regardless of economic background, but albeit at varying degrees for those of lower socioeconomic status.
The potential consequences of this disparity illuminate inequalities so glaring they could be found in a public health case study on nutrition. I can visualize a graph tracking the soaring academic and personal thrivation of the stealthy TOZ patron as the high sugar content of every syrupy concentrate and snack pack leads Libe kids to suffer energy drain, a fatty liver and eventual acceleration of the skin aging process.
The appeal of Zoos’ prime grub is somewhat overshadowed by its inaccessibility and its sophisticated ambiance often overrun by the presence of pseudo-intellectual hipsters. When I do see professors, they’re grabbing their soup from the line and hurriedly retreating to eat lunch in their offices. Once a hub of academic exchange for scholars of the humanities, TOZ these days is filled with patrons conducting anything from conference calls to office hours to sorority lunch date takeovers. I kid you not: On “Theta Thursdays,” members of my sorority gather under the dome and spill into the atrium with our reusable soup tins and wooden spoons, wearing our swag and eager to chat about our days. Heck, I’m active in a GroupMe — “SoupMe” — dedicated to the daily dissemination of updates on the cafe’s broths, bisques, chowders, bouillons, stews and cream-of’s.
Over the past few years, the mainstream adoption of exotic imports like avocados, quinoa and nut milks have modeled that what seems healthy and sustainable can have the same, and sometimes even more, devastating economic and environmental consequences as their traditionally manufactured counterparts. That is to say, the world is not better off for your choosing fair trade avo toast over genetically modified staples like tomatoes and potatoes. These studies have shocked many socially progressive adults into recognizing that their preferences serve few outside their own tastes and preferences. It’s what I like to call the “hipster paradox.” In the same vein, I haven’t been able to find any data that Zeus is significantly more sustainable, and the 25-cent monetary incentive to use non-perishable cutlery and bowls honestly is not enough to lug extra stuff around in my schoolbag. You probably won’t find any less plastic and food waste in the ergonomically shaped compost/recycle bins in TOZ than you will in the poorly classified ones in Libe. In Libe, on the other hand, a reusable mug actually does yield a significant discount — $1.50! Unheard of in Zoosland.
I appreciate Zeus’s support of the local food economy and certainly don’t fault its managers for their choice in brand presentation. But I urge you, the customer, to be wary of ostensibly “better” options, especially when it comes to the accessibility of sustainable food choices. It is automatically so because of its aesthetic appeal? What, exactly, makes it better? I therefore challenge you to enjoy your soup, but with a caveat: Be prepared to look deeper and potentially digest the unpalatable truth you find about what might just be another millennial consumerist paradox.
Edem Dzodzomenyo is a junior in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ed’s Declassified appears every other Friday this semester.