Why I'm skeptical of Ryerson's food fix - Macleans.ca

Why I’m skeptical of Ryerson’s food fix

The affordability problem is hard to address


Jessica Darmanin

Ryerson University has dropped its food contract with Aramark, which was paid $5.6 million over five years just to cover losses. Now the downtown Toronto school is promising “a new era of food” with more local, sustainable, gluten-free, vegan and halal options from a new corporate partner, Chartwells. The Ryerson Students’ Union isn’t happy. It would have preferred an in-house co-op.

But I doubt the switch to Chartwells or a co-op could address Ryerson students’ main complaint.

When I spoke to Ryerson students last fall about food, they said their biggest concern wasn’t finding more vegan or halal. The reason they packed lunches or frequented the Pizza Pizza across the street was the high prices on campus. Indeed, a turkey wrap, milk and melon cup cost a painful $14.28. It was $13.33 with a meal plan.

It turned out high prices were a common complaint on campuses and one reason for that is how much food workers are paid. A unionized Subway sandwich maker at the University of British Columbia cost $17.02/hour plus benefits, about twice as much as a minimum-wage earning employee off campus, at $10.25 without benefits. And that was before last year’s strike.

It will be very difficult for Ryerson’s prices to drop because, as the Toronto Star notes, about 70 Ontario Public Service Employees Union cafeteria workers are unaffected by the change.

Ryerson students I spoke to last year weren’t aware their food cost more because workers earned more. Those I informed were torn between wanting to eat cheaply and paying workers living wages.

If Ryerson students want cheaper food they will likely need to continue brown-bagging it or eating off campus. If they want the comfort of knowing that their food is served by someone who isn’t struggling on low wages and can afford to feed his or her family, campus may be their best bet.

The only ways campus food prices are ever likely to become competitive with off-campus prices would be if Ryerson paid a lot less (in which case prices would come down) or if service workers off campus all suddenly won higher wages too, in which case hungry students who don’t want to make their own turkey wraps and fruit cups would need to shell out $15 wherever they eat lunch. Higher pay is exactly what fast-food workers in the United States are pushing for right now.

It’s food for thought.


Why I’m skeptical of Ryerson’s food fix

  1. It’s disappointing that Ryerson University is committing the same mistakes and doing little to actually address the issue of on-campus food. The solution would be to ditch the contract and allow multiple private companies to come in and sell their products on campus. The competition between businesses would lower prices to a much more affordable level for students as well as expand the variety of foods according to their respective demands e.g. if there were more demand for organic then higher amounts of organic food would be sold and vice versa. This solves the issues of high costs and limited food options at once which are the main concerns of students and not whether or not we have enough halal and gluten-free food.

    Also, neither are the wages of the food service workers an important issue here. If the problem was earning high enough wages to feed a family on then why not artificially raise the wages to $20/hr? Or $200/hr? This suggestion is absurd because common sense tells us that the worker’s productivity does not merit those high wages. Why must a job that requires very little training and skill, which almost any person pulled off the street can do, be required to have a wage that is higher than what is economically viable? Businesses cannot run as charities. They have to earn a profit after paying off their costs so there must be trade-offs. When they pay higher wages to their workers they must compensate for those costs by raising the prices of their products. But by raising prices to higher than what is set by competition they risk losing customers and therefore do not make profits.

    This is exactly what we’ve seen with Ryerson and its contract with Aramark. Because Aramark’s prices were so high they incurred significant losses which had to be covered by the University. But in reality it’s the students who are paying the price for this foolish enterprise because the University is financed by Ryerson students. So not only are students being punished with the limited options of either paying for artificially high priced food on campus with little variety, buying food off campus, or bringing food from home, they also have to subsidize the very company that brought about this situation in the first place. Any private business off-campus would have been forced to shut down if they were run like on-campus food contractors but because Aramark faced no virtually no competition and were financed nonetheless by the University despite running losses and doing a piss-poor job of meeting students’ needs they were able to survive for as long as they did. And now, we have the same situation happening all over again with Chartwells – except the food options are even more unappetizing (imo).

    This is all basic economics coming out into play here. It’s laughable and sad that most students are ignorant of the situation. But then again, I think it speaks volumes about the state of higher education today. Oy vey.

    • I think that the issue is larger than which company will offer lower food prices. What Ryerson students and all communities need are access to local food governance. Usually, universities are the places which have the resources and the commitment to create these environments. For example Concordia used to have a student run vegan food program, where it offered free meals to students. If the Students are ultimately paying the price, then shouldn’t they have access to “free”, local food?