Simply getting students to eat at campus establishments became chef and food activist Joshna Maharaj's main concern when she became executive chef and assistant head of Ryerson University's food services in August last year.
Following a messy divorce with Toronto-based Aramark Canada Ltd. as the downtown Toronto school's cafeteria and catering operator last summer – which reportedly cost Ryerson as much as $5.6-million over a five-year period – food services on the downtown Toronto campus had become a political lightning rod between the faculty and the students. The onus fell on Ms. Maharaj to turn things around.
"My recommendation was around the idea that institutions actually need to invest more in their food service," she says. "The problem is that we have been outsourcing it all completely and letting operators take the complete lead and I don't think that's the right fit.
"I really heavily pushed for us to paint the utopian picture of what we wanted this good-food picture to look like. Those included things like sharp minimums on purchasing from local, sustainable suppliers, and steady growth in that over the years of the contract, a real push towards scratch cooking, a focus on seasonal menus and more conscious engagement with the campus…because I really want to rebuild the culture of food on this campus."
A chef by trade, Ms. Maharaj had been busy revamping hospital menus before Ryerson came calling, but she went to work right away, helping write up the RFP that was ultimately won by Chartwells, part of Britain-based Compass Group. One of her recommendations was bringing on board roughly 29 new, mainly local suppliers, and shorter payment terms for those suppliers, recognizing the fact that many are small family farms that need money on a more frequent basis.
She also instituted a water bottle-free campus as of last September, harnessed her kitchen staff to become scratch cooks rather than specialists in reheating food, and instituted the Friendly Five, a daily $5 meal in three of the cafés on campus – "I made a promise it would never be a slice of pizza and a bag of chips." Given the plethora of eating options surrounding Ryerson's campus – Ms. Maharaj estimates that there are 300 eating outlets within a 10-minute walking radius – the level of competition for student food dollars is extremely high, and it doesn't help that out of 36,000-plus students, only 800 are residents of the school.
"I want to suggest a vibe or an idea that says eating on campus is actually a political act because you're supporting a more equitable labour system and a more sustainable food system," she says.
FARM FEEDS MINDS
She's not alone in the Canadian university system. To better provide for, and educate, students at the University of British Columbia, an on-campus farm was instituted, complete with thrice-weekly farmers markets to provide fresh, locally sourced and sustainable food to the students, and local residents, around UBC's Vancouver campus. But the idea is about more than feeding the young minds studying at the university.
"Mostly we try to bring the students along the whole seed-to-plate continuum," says Véronik Campbell, academic programs manager at the UBC farm. "So we make sure they're involved at the growing stage of the food. Through their classes, I'm going to work with instructors to make sure students are actually going to be asking questions about how we grow the food and they can come and grow the food with us during the growing season to get a sense of how that works."
The farm teaches between 2,400 and 2,600 students annually about what goes into the food production chain, with credit being awarded for helping out on the farm, which grows about 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables.
FRESH PRODUCE WITH THAT DEGREE?
The University of Ottawa, along with its neighbour, Carleton University, teamed with the Ottawa Good Food Box about five or six years ago to ensure that its students get access to cheap, locally sourced and nutritious food through the program's monthly food delivery.
About 40 students during the school year pay between $5 and $25 for a box full of fruits and vegetables. Taylor Davidson, a summer assistant at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, estimates that the program offers a saving of about 30 per cent over regular grocery-store costs. One issue: The content of the box varies, so some students may not know how to use everything in it. Luckily, the program also offers cooking classes the day after the box is delivered. It helps students "deal with what's in their box and get a little creative," Ms. Davidson says.
STUDENTS FEED STUDENTS
Creativity is certainly the name of the game at Trent University's Seasoned Spoon Café. The on-campus cafe at the Peterborough, Ont., university is a student-driven, not-for-profit co-operative offering local, organic vegetarian food. The cafe is also big on food education, offering courses and workshops to students, and employs 12 students and 40 volunteers to run the kitchen and organize events.
"It is quite different from what you'll find in the cafeterias," says Aimee Blyth, the Seasoned Spoon's manager. "Also all the other work that we're doing around making food affordable and accessible and making food skills accessible I think is…quite unique to the Spoon."
In addition to having its own vegetable gardens and root cellar, the Spoon also fosters a sense of inclusivity through its membership scheme, all part of what Ms. Blyth describes as a "very active food culture at Trent."
The university itself also switched its food service provider earlier this year, and under its new contract with Chartwells, Trent will be offering such options as a carryover of credit on student meal plans and, like Ryerson, a $5 value meal option for students on a budget. The university is also trying to survive on fewer franchises, but acknowledges that tactic brings its own challenges, as franchises generate substantial revenue for food services as a whole.
"With food services, it's always a bit challenging because you have a number of competing things that you want," says Nona Robinson, associate vice-president of students at Trent. "One is sustainability and also supporting local farmers; another is very good value for money, and another is highly nutritious and also very delicious food."