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Sour Grapes: Harvard Students Pound the Table Over Table Grape Boycott

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On Dec. 3, 1997, Harvard College undergraduates gathered at the polls to vote on the fate of a small but powerful presence of Sunday brunch: grapes.

Following a five-year boycott on table grapes at the College inspired by a national United Farm Workers grape boycott, Harvard Dining Services announced at the end of October 1997 that grapes would be reintroduced to Sunday brunch.

Shortly after their initial announcement, Harvard Dining Services was met with pushback from the student body, particularly from Harvard-Radcliffe RAZA — a Mexican and Latinx affinity group — and the Progressive Student Labor Movement.

Sergio J. Campos ’00, a leader of RAZA, said the motivation behind RAZA’s involvement was rooted in an “affinity” for many of the farmers and migrant workers from Latin America.

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“We sort of felt that it was important for many of us to bring awareness to the conditions of the workers at the time, and we were worried about the symbolism of Harvard going against the boycott,” Campos said.

Due to student pushback, Dining Services decided on Nov. 7, 1997 to postpone serving grapes in the dining hall until there was a College-wide referendum to decide the issue.

The campus, Crimson coverage, and the Undergraduate Council then became consumed in what became known as the “Great Grape Debate” on whether the College should continue its boycott of table grapes in support of the UFW or bring grapes back to its menu.

“Nothing like this has ever come up,” then-Dining Services project manager Alexandra E. McNitt told The Crimson in December 1997.

Leading the pro-grape camp, which pushed for the reintroduction of grapes, was Adam R. Kovacevich ’99. Kovacevich, who launched the Grape Coalition, was motivated by his family’s connection to the grape industry and sparked the movement to bring back grapes in order to open up the conversation.

“I had seen these kinds of debates play out before, but where there hadn’t really been a debate,” Kovacevich said. “I was interested in having more of a balanced debate on that question of whether grapes should return to the dining halls.”

“I had personal experience with it. My dad is a grape grower in California and I grew up around agricultural industry, and so that was a big driver for me,” he added.

The Crimson Editorial Board at the time took the stance in support of continuing the UFW grape boycott in support of the grape workers.

Adam J. Levitan ’98 dissented from this opinion.

In his dissent from the Editorial Board, Levitan called to keep politics out of the dining hall, writing that “Harvard students should not have politics imposed on their palettes.” Instead, Levitan suggested “stricter government enforcement of existing labor and pesticide regulations.”

Within the Undergraduate Council, the grape boycott became a part of a larger moral debate about what role the UC would play on campus.

Adam S. Vaina ’98, a UC member, described the grape debate in the UC as a debate between two types of activism: activism focused on “actual changes in student life on campus” versus activism “standing up for a certain global or national political issue.”

“It seemed like a bit of, I would say, not very democratic approach,” Vaina said of the boycott. “I don’t think the minority should impose on the majority a consumer boycott.”

Then-freshman Todd E. Plants ’01 believed the UC’s activism could be more outwardly focused. Plants sponsored a resolution in 1997 for the UC to endorse a “No” vote on the Dining Services referendum, in support of continuing the UFW boycott.

“Obviously, being at Harvard, you get attention that may or may not be earned,” Plants said. “But, you could make an action, send a signal on to the world, take a stance on something you believed in that you felt like represented the students, to try to use your influence to achieve positive change.”

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Leading up to the referendum, both sides went head to head in campus organizing – hanging up posters, laying out cards on the tables, debating in the Harvard Political Union, and even handing out grapes on campus.

“I remember I contacted the trade association that represented the California grape industry and they arranged to have 15 boxes of grapes shipped to my dorm room in Quincy,” Kovacevich said.

“And so one morning a produce truck arrives at Quincy and then unloads, and these massive boxes, so just distributing all those grapes on campus was a massive undertaking, and I don’t even remember how I did it,” he added.

Ultimately, the referendum came out in favor of bringing table grapes back to dining halls at the College.

In November 2000 — three years after the College's decision to bring back table grapes to the dining halls — the UFW announced the end of its third grape boycott.

“So I think actually our students choosing to end grape boycott was a domino that knocked it over nationally too,” Kovacevich said.

Even though he was disappointed in the outcome, Campos looks back on the debate fondly.

“I used to be very frustrated about the outcome, but as I’ve gotten older and reflected on it, I’m actually quite proud that a very diverse coalition sort of came out of the blue to really address this issue,” Campos said.

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Those involved with organizing around the grape debate on both sides found the experience to be meaningful and a source of inspiration for the work they do today.

“I became an entrepreneur and in general, maybe, this experience helped the feeling that if you actually take matters into your own hands, you can actually get things done. So, for me, that was a positive experience,” Vaina said.

Campos, who is now a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law and was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in fall 2022, had similar feelings as Vaina.

“It definitely had a gigantic influence on me and the career I ended up having,” Campos said.

“I came into college as a pre-med student and basically I went to law school, I became a law professor, and I became sort of more concerned with the practical aspect of policy trying to make sure that good things happen,” he added.

Daniel R. Morgan ’99, a member of the PSLM, remembers the grape debate’s legacy as part of a resurgence of progressive activism on campus that helped build coalitions across student groups.

“It was also an occasion for a range of new coalitions to emerge among progressive activists,” Morgan said, describing partnerships between RAZA, PSLM, migration activists, and environmentalists.

“It was in the long haul, I think, part of a broader resurgence of campus activism that was taking place across the mid-to-late 1990s and was very much a contribution to that kind of surge,” he added.

—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at sabrina.hu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sxbrinahhu.

—Staff writer Sami E. Turner can be reached at sami.turner@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @samiturner_.

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