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The campus food revolution

When students and administrators join resources to improve the food on campus, cafeteria is no longer a dirty word.


It’s steak week at the Creelman Marketplace, a food-court style of cafeteria at the University of Guelph. The chef at the grill station is sizzling up steak fajitas to order for a long lineup. The featured pizza, also cooked on the spot, is steak and blue cheese. The cafeteria’s always popular 100 Mile Grill has added Philly Cheese Steak Poutine to its usual selection of locally sourced burgers and homemade fries.

Mark Kenny, procurement coordinator for U of Guelph’s hospitality services, bought the 1,200 Canadian AA steaks the school will use this week, including 134 ribeyes sold at one dinner hour. “When we do steak week,” says Mr. Kenny, “it’s crazy.” After his own lunch – the pizza, which he photographs and posts on Twitter, then savours while pondering whether it needs more blue cheese – it’s a chat with Gordon Cooledge, an executive sous chef, beside the meticulously labelled salad bar. Mr. Kenny is excited about next week’s theme: food truck week. The chef corrects him: it’s actually street food. “I don’t know how that got out there,” says Mr. Cooledge.

So, there’s a bit of a broken telephone at U of Guelph over food. This can happen when you communicate about the subject so much to the team, to students, via social media and at conferences. Mr. Kenny’s core job is bringing in the raw goods to feed the school’s 23,000 students, faculty and staff (in particular the 5,000 first-year resident students on a mandatory meal plan) as well as for hospitality’s full-service catering business that does all events on campus and some around the city too.

Mr. Kenny has a lot to say because he procures from 75 local farmers (a fact that’s noted in signs all over campus), from the school’s numerous research stations (including a fish farm and dairy), and from the university’s meat processing facility and apiary. Local produce makes up 45 percent of Guelph’s buying for most of the year. Meanwhile, hospitality staff, including 50 chefs and chefs-in-training, cook mainly from scratch and whip up ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard and pickles, along with all the soups, salads and packaged sandwiches sold on campus.

“It’s all about the people,” says Mr. Kenny. “Ingenuity in the kitchen leads to great taste on the plate.” Students appear to agree: a comment card posted at the entry to Creelman reads, “I love food!” – to which the manager has scrawled the reply, “We do too!”

U of Guelph loves food, and more campuses across the country are in on the joy, taste and community that truly good eating brings. Led by vocal champions like Mr. Kenny and supported by national non-profit groups such as Meal Exchange, Canadian universities are questioning old assumptions about food and campus life. Some are overhauling their entire procurement approach. Others are testing a student-run garden or a farmers’ market. Many are embracing better quality and more sustainable food and are making wide-ranging connections between better diets and overall mental and intellectual health.

What’s more, delicious smells from campus kitchens offer a smart marketing opportunity. “When schools think about food service as it relates to their recruitment and retention efforts, that’s when they begin to see how it can align with their broader vision,” says Mark Murdoch, senior associate with Food Systems Consulting in Toronto, who has helped several universities revamp their food-service programs. When an institution aligns its food offerings with its advertised brand to do with the environment, local economy, ethical treatment of people and animals, and campus life, that often resonates with the brightest of prospective students and faculty on the hunt for a great school.

Photo by Michael Crichton. Stylist: Leigh Macmillan.
Photo by Michael Crichton. Stylist: Leigh Macmillan.

A short history of food on campus
When most Canadian universities were built decades ago, food was not a big subject of conversation. Academia happened in the classroom and the library. Feeding the people on campus was a bothersome necessity. So cafeterias were tucked in basements and decorated with brown tile floors. Outside catering agencies were charged with the job of feeding a crowd on a tight budget, few questions asked.

For many first-year students living in residence, meal plans inevitably led to the “freshman fifteen” (the legendary 15 pounds of weight gain in your first term). Those on campus who could eat elsewhere, did. In the 1990s, as fast food chains expanded and peddled their wares to university campuses, everyone flocked to those familiar line-ups for lunch.

About a decade ago, talk of buying local, trying organic produce and cooking from scratch started to become part of the national conversation. The Food Network and books about local diets made the connection between health, empowerment and local economies. Canadians ate it up. Universities realized they were behind and started contacting food consultants like Mr. Murdoch, who got his first enquiries on transforming food service eight years ago. Of late, he is deluged with requests: “Now, every school has some kind of environmental component to their food service program.”

A 2013 survey by Farm to Cafeteria Canada, a national organization connecting institutions to local food, found that 92 percent of the 36 universities and colleges that responded were offering local food, 33 percent had a buy-local food policy and 86 percent were offering educational activities related to food. Nonetheless, 81 percent wanted to do more activities around food in future. Ontario’s Local Food Challenge, which is encouraging institutions to buy locally, drew in three universities for its 2014 edition (U of Guelph, University of Toronto Scarborough and Wilfrid Laurier University).

The philosophical motivations behind the change are multiple. “Food is so critical to learning. Students need to be alert and aware; they need access to healthy food,” says Victoria Wakefield, purchasing manager, student housing and hospitality services, at the University of British Columbia. For first-year students, buying cafeteria food is a learning experience as their first foray into being a dietary consumer.

Healthy meals lead to an array of health benefits on campus. Celia White works in a newly created position called healthy community coordinator at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. The former student food-activist is charged with helping the school develop a more sustainable food system.

“I realize more and more the relevance of my title,” says Ms. White, “[and that] the most significant and valuable aspect of food work has to do with health, be it personal, community, animal welfare or environmental health.” Indeed, many of the projects she’s working on, such as a farmers’ market on campus and a program that gets students working on a farm for a day in exchange for food, are as much about healthy eating as they are about community and empowerment.

Fostering an overall healthy campus has internal benefits, as well as external ones. “Food is an opportunity for a university to define its culture,” asserts Sarah Archibald, program manager of Toronto-based Meal Exchange, which supports student-led food activism across the country.

Not surprisingly, institutions with large environmental science or agricultural programs are taking the lead – the connection to their brand is clear. And most are now using or soliciting research by students and faculty to improve the campus food system. But other schools are realizing those dowdy cafeterias and their lukewarm offerings speak loudly about the school’s values. (To be sure, even those universities that are the most progressive in serving healthy, delicious local food are home to fast-food outlets, as well.)

“When was it decided that students were to eat this way?” wonders Joshna Maharaj, a longtime food activist and, since 2013, Ryerson University’s executive chef and director of food services. “The message the food service would often be sending is, ‘We don’t care about you enough to do any better than this.’”

Students lead the change
The University of Manitoba had terrible food. The administration was perceived to be doing nothing about it, so students such as Julie Rempel stepped in. When the then-biochemistry undergrad enrolled at U of M on the outskirts of Winnipeg seven years ago, eating options were cafeterias filled with prepackaged foods – like white-bread sandwiches in triangular plastic cases – and fast-food outlets. While taking a nutrition course, Ms. Rempel connected with the professor and fellow students who thought food choices, waste and hunger on campus could be improved.

Ms. Rempel began years of advocacy work at the university, which serves nearly 40,000 people, with limited success. But in 2012 she helped form the University of Manitoba Campus Food Strategy Group, and it received funding from the Campus Food Systems Project, run by Meal Exchange, for a two-year pilot project to pay Ms. Rempel for a few hours of her work every week. The group did an informal campus survey – in which students said they were unhappy with the food and wanted cheaper and healthier options – and brought administrators, food-service provider Aramark Canada and students together for meetings. That was a big deal at the time. “There was a lot of tension between students, staff and the food-service provider,” she recalls.

Things started to change when Ms. Rempel found champions at U of M and with Aramark. The food improved a bit; for instance, sushi appeared in cafeterias. In the summer of 2013, U of M put out a request for proposals on its food-service contract, and the campus food strategy group was invited to the table. In early 2014, the school hired Ms. Rempel to help it put together a baseline assessment of the state of its catering and all food-related activities on campus.

“That pretty much for us was a huge sign that the university was taking this seriously,” she says. Now, the school’s main cafeteria is being renovated and will reopen with no fast-food outlets. The administration is on board to better understand and improve its entire food system.

According to Ms. Archibald of Meal Exchange, while many schools are moving a better dietary agenda forward internally, the non-profit she works for has been in touch with student groups at about one-third of Canadian universities. “Most changes are being led by students,” she says. But when students try to trigger change like that at U of M, it’s often tough: they’re not paid to put in the time needed, procurement is pivotal, and often they aren’t well enough connected to know what’s going on food-wise in every corner of campus.

Yet Ryerson’s rapid transformation, triggered by students, has become something of a model. Starting in late 2012, students started staging a mini- revolt. They complained about food quality and prices, spoke with the media about the fact that the school was paying its food-service provider $5.6 million for losses incurred at school cafeterias, and proposed a new system that would involve taking food service in-house. Ryerson hired Ms. Maharaj and gave her the budget and power to transform the school’s food- service philosophy and offerings, and she did so in just a year. Under a new provider, Chartwells, Ryerson has become a national leader with its increase in local procurement and more cooking from scratch. Its Friendly Fiver – every day, the cafeterias offer a hot meal for just $5 – have been widely copied.

Ryerson’s pivot has a lot to do with Ms. Maharaj’s passion and expertise (she had already improved food services at two Toronto hospitals) but also with the fact that Ryerson is simply not feeding a lot of people. While the Ryerson community numbers 42,000, few students live on campus and they have 300 outside food options within a 10-minute walk from campus. Hence the school needs to operate only two cafeterias, along with several food kiosks.

Bringing food services in-house
According to Ms. Archibald, 75 percent of Canadian colleges and universities contract out their food procurement and preparation. UBC, which feeds 68,000 people, is self-operated, and that has allowed it to pull off a food transformation in four years.

Ms. Wakefield, UBC’s hospitality purchasing manager, buys for the nine chefs and 34-plus food outlets on campus. Since 2011, she has systematically revamped food on campus as part of UBC’s drive to become more sustainable. She now formally defines what “local” means for UBC (grown, raised or processed within 150 miles of campus), and measures that (48 per cent currently), and reports numbers back to the university. Food services buys certified sustainable seafood and fair trade coffee and has undertaken to reduce waste, use electric vehicles and compost garbage.

Ms. Wakefield brushes off the time challenges of nosing out local alter-natives. “It’s an excuse, a total excuse. When you’re in procurement, that’s your job.” She also argues that local food is not more pricey. “It’s always cheaper. And when you buy fresh and it’s perishable, you’re doing more just-in-time purchasing so you don’t have as much waste.”

As an added incentive, investing in this type of sustainable and better food may pay off financially over time. At UBC, sales over the last five years have been up more than 50 percent – a skewed number, admits Ms. Wakefield, because the school has opened more food outlets. The school recently launched a new pizzeria that’s been so busy it hit capacity in the first month. “We built that for the long term,” she says, “and clearly we didn’t build it
big enough.”

For those working with outside caterers, change is possible but it takes more steps. Signing a new contract helps. Ryerson says it’s partnering with Chartwells to find new local suppliers, to change company policy on buying from an on-campus garden and to train staff to cook more meals from scratch.

But without on-campus leaders working in positions related to food service, many small food-related initiatives go unsung and unnoticed. For instance, a communal garden at Université de Sherbooke was started by students in 2009 with $1,000 in seed money from the school’s sustainability department. For the 20 or so students who plant, harvest and socialize at the 250 square-metre plot, it provides fresh food, an ongoing project, and a chance to meet people from across the campus.

“The garden is really a melting pot. I get to meet people from other faculties,” says Michèle Provencher, an environmental studies undergrad who’s coordinator of the garden. But the garden scrapes by on limited resources – the tiny room in a nearby building it uses for its tools and seedlings, she says, is “not really appropriate.” While the university had a nutritionist doing food education on campus, and another group is trying to build a greenhouse, the gardeners don’t have the resources or the incentive to connect with these and other food groups.

Indeed, tapping into existing resources remains one of the biggest challenges for institutions trying to overhaul their approach to food. Even U of Guelph started buying from its own research stations only five years ago. “I don’t think that anyone ever thought about it before,” observes Mr. Kenny. (He’s been planning to connect with the university’s station in Quebec that produces its own maple syrup, but it simply hasn’t happened yet.)

But, as schools push forward with revitalizing their food systems, they tend to connect with campus gardens and fruit-tree picking groups, as well as with nutrition, environmental and food service research projects that can actually help them improve the food service even more.

Meanwhile, even the most organized sustainable food operation needs to keep innovating. Mr. Kenny has been trying for years to get a permanent composting program running. At U of Manitoba, Ms. Rempel laments the lack of ethnically diverse foods to properly serve both Canadian and international students.

Another key ingredient is spreading the word. To the untrained eye and taste bud, a salad dressing from a bin and a homemade one using local ingredients may seem the same. Again, U of Guelph excels at this with extensive signage plus an active social media presence. Hospitality’s Twitter feed is busy with announcements of cafeteria specials and pictures of burgers slathered with bacon. According to Mr. Murdoch, the food services consultant, the communications has to be timely and authentic. “You have to be able to tell an honest story. Students won’t be tricked.”

Indeed, that authenticity is the defining feature of universities leading when it comes to what’s on the plate. “The schools that are doing better at this see it as part of their mission, not just as a part of operations,” says Mr. Murdoch. If education in Canada starts to taste better across the board, that’s good for everyone.

What’s on the menu at more Canadian schools

Dalhousie University
Dal currently expects to be serving 35 percent local, sustainable and fair food. The biggest push at the Maritime school is for a new approach to seafood. It has begun a relationship with Off The Hook, a local fishing co-op, to buy what’s in abundance as the seasons change, and four of its dining halls are Marine Stewardship Council certified. Food service at Dal is also working towards a goal of creating zero waste and using more green cleaning products.

Université Laval
In June 2014, the undergraduate student association, which goes by the acronym CADEUL, took over the management of one of the university’s main cafeterias from a private firm and hired two well-known restaurateurs as manager and executive chef. The renamed Saveurs Campus offers healthy food options using local ingredients, where possible, including lots of vegetarian offerings and no fried food. The chef and manager say the aim is to become “a reference point in Canada for student cafeterias.”

University of Winnipeg
This small, downtown campus – once called out by Maclean’s for having some of the worst university food in the country – dropped its large caterer five years ago. It’s now fed by Diversity Foods, a company partially owned by the university and headed up by executive chef Ben Kramer. The company cooks from scratch, buys local, sustainable and fair-trade products and even does much of its own butchering. Next move: taking over a campus greenhouse and growing more produce for campus kitchens.

McGill University
Food service here used to struggle to break even. Then student advocates and administrators joined together to revamp the university’s catering contract to cover just 40 percent of the food on campus, using smaller operators for the rest. McGill’s food is now mostly homemade and recipes get scrutinized by a dietitian. In 2009, McGill started buying from its own 100-year-old research and teaching farm, and the Macdonald Campus farm now supplies 30,000 kilos of produce to the school every year.

Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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  1. Omar Tibbs / March 13, 2015 at 11:16

    And we wonder why so many undergrads and grad students graduate with such a heavy debt load. Students should be packing lunches from home, and thereby save themselves a ton of money. My Uni’s student centre is packed at lunchtime with students spending untold sums of money on pizzas, fancy burgers, sushi, expensive platters filled with countless culinary delights. At break time in my lectures, students mindlessly go running off to the coffee shop for snacks, thinking nothing of the consequences to their long-term financial conditions spending so freely as they do.

  2. DalStudent2012 / March 17, 2015 at 15:28

    From what source was the Dalhousie University food information acquired? The 35% locally sourced food products number seems too high to be true. Locally sourced was not defined within this article as well. Does it mean in the same county? Same province? Same country? Because “locally sourced” food coming from the other side of the country is hardly something to brag about. Tim Horton’s, Bento Sushi, and Chicken Burger all operate at Dalhousie and arguably few products available from them are locally sourced.
    The main catering company at Dalhousie for the meal halls and other services, Aramark, makes a total of almost $14,000,000,000 annually from various institutions, including prisons, and have been caught serving maggots at multiple prisons and fined for it. Those institutions include prisons AND universities. I am doubtful that they would locally source products as it would not serve their interests as a for-profit multinational corporation. I will doubt this information until proven to be true. Even if they did serve local products, their business model is not one of sustainability or food justice and is not a company I want serving my food.
    What all campuses really should have is student-owned, and student-run food services as they promote sustainability through purchase and support of local farmers, and food justice by serving food to those who could otherwise not afford it.

    • toDalStudent2012 / March 19, 2015 at 17:30

      DalStudent2012, I think you ask a lot of great questions. Why not reach out to the local provider to understand what ‘Local’ means to them. I’m assuming that number does not come from Tim Hortons and Bento Sushi products, perhaps from their Dining Hall? I think common sense can prevail in that assumption?
      I do sense a bit of bias in your comments, which I’m sure can be justified. Keep an open mind, and do not assume that corporations are here to lie, corrupt and steal.
      If you want to increase the focus on sustainability, and food justice then companies like Aramark, Sodexo, and others hold most of the cards. That being said, pushing the needle even 5% with these companies will have a larger effect than your local coffee shop or student run operations.
      I applaud the efforts of these institutions attempting to set the bar for the Food Service industry. Instead of berating them for what they are doing I’m interested in seeing how we can collectively work together to push that needle even further.
      Are they doing everything right? No, not at all…and that is where the great folks at Meal Exchange come in to push the industry!

  3. Terry Crowley / March 19, 2015 at 17:13

    Guelph and UBC had the best campus food – delicious by any standards – during my many decades in the university system — and both were operated locally rather than contracted out.

  4. MB / February 4, 2016 at 21:00

    The food at the U of M is too expensive and poor

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