Gainesville -- University of Florida junior Michael Closer has eaten a lot of Hare Krishna lunches during his three years at UF.
He says he likes the vegetarian meals, which the Krishnas have been spooning out to students for decades from their spot on a grassy plaza in the heart of campus. And until recently, he really liked the price, which was a donation.
But when Closer lined up for lunch a few weeks ago, he learned the gravy train was over. The voluntary contribution was now mandatory, the Krishnas told him. Either pay $3 or no food.
Closer was aghast.
"A donation to me means I don't have to pay it if I don't have the money," says the Pensacola native, who says he was finally served after he agreed to pay $1 on the spot and the rest the next day.
The Krishnas say they have no choice. Rising prices for food and insurance have made it impossible for the sect to rely strictly on the generosity of students.
"It's too bad we have to do this," says Savyasaci Das, the director of the local Hare Krishna Center. "But some people were taking advantage of what we were doing. We didn't have any other choice."
Students do, however, and many of them are now lunching elsewhere.
"If I have to pay this much for the food, I might as well go somewhere else," says UF junior Summer Smith, a political science major from Lakeland.
If enough students adopt that philosophy - and the Krishnas say their lunch crowd already is down significantly - one of UF's older and more offbeat traditions could be nearing its end.
The Krishnas began serving lunch on the Plaza of the Americas in 1971, when it was the site of frequent antiwar protests. Tens of thousands of students have eaten their rice dishes in the years since, often whiling away the time watching sect members dance and pray as they spread the teachings of Krishna, their Hindu god.
The scene has become so familiar it is now a staple of campus tours.
But Das says times have changed. The bulk food the Krishnas prepare off-site is going up in price. So are the insurance payments for the van used to transport the meals to campus.
Krishna chefs wake up each weekday at 5 a.m. at the Krishna Center to begin making the food. They say the meal is intended to help the campus community achieve spiritual advancement.
On a recent morning the chefs cooked a mix of rice, eggplant and potato. The next day's menu included a spaghetti mix, the Krishna meal most popular with students.
The kitchen is not large, so even on a cold, 50-degree morning the heat from the rice cooker can make the tiled room nearly unbearable. That's another reason the lunch donation has become mandatory; the Krishnas badly need to upgrade their facilities.
But they insist no one is making any money. Das says all the money generated from lunch sales goes back into the food.
Mike Day, a 19-year-old sophomore from St. Petersburg, says he eats a Krishna lunch each day and empathizes with the sect's problems. He's willing to pay the $3 if it means better and more varied food.
"They have to pay for it somehow," says Day, a political science major. "You used to always see people coming in and just taking the food without paying. It's just not fair."