Shortly before the University of Manitoba’s Pembina Hall opened for dinner one evening last spring, Matt Soprovich led a group of students in a march to the steps of the U of M’s administration building. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the letters “F.U.” (Food service Unfulfilled) and carrying empty dining hall trays, they wanted to deliver a message: they were sick and tired of the food. “Students tell me, ‘Hey Matt, I got food poisoning the other day… I vomited a dozen times this year,’ ” the third-year political science student shouted into a microphone to an audience of about 50. “For $400 a month, we deserve more.”
In the days following, things appeared to change for the better. “At the next couple of dinners they brought out a really nice spread with a buffet and they had this chicken with a splendid sauce so wonderfully prepared,” he recounts. “That lasted about a week.”
To underscore the seriousness of his cause, Soprovich conducted a survey asking students to rate the food, and published the findings in an 11-page manifesto entitled The Aramark Manifesto, named after the university’s exclusive food provider. Of the 45 people who took part in the survey, 20 said they had experienced symptoms such as nausea, lethargy, diarrhea and vomiting. To make his case with senior university administrators, Soprovich invited them to lunch — in the dining hall. They all declined. “Sorry, I have another engagement,” wrote the provost and vice-president academic, Robert Kerr. “However, I hear the food is pretty good and have done the residence visit before so do not really need to test it. Enjoy your lunch.”
Griping about the quality of university food is nothing new, and it’s hardly unique to the University of Manitoba. The annual Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities has been conducting a “campus confidential” survey for the past 10 years — asking student newspapers, clubs and union representatives to describe what’s hot and what’s not at their respective universities — and complaints about cafeteria food are as commonplace as the mystery meat served in many a dining hall on Sunday nights.
At Brock University’s DeCew dining hall in St. Catharines, Ont., the menu is worthy of a place of honour in the fast-food hall of shame. The lunch choices one day in September: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches (“Texas toast”) and hot dogs, all served with French fries. There are also bean and beef burritos, cheese ravioli, brown beans and baked Mexican rice that all wither under infrared heating lamps and taste chalky and overcooked. There’s pizza. And the day’s special: chicken tinga with vegetables. It resembles a papier mâché project and tastes similar to one. “It’s not horrendous but definitely not amazing,” says Julia Falcone, a first-year child and youth studies student who is lactose intolerant and often feels bloated at the end of the day. “Some days I just eat salad and rice,” she adds with a fleeting smile. For some students who have only been eating the food for a couple of weeks, the menu is already becoming a point of frustration. “It doesn’t taste good, it’s so full of carbs and they never switch it,” says Meagan Sanchez, a first-year psychology student. A quick look at the menu on the university’s website confirms Sanchez’s assertion. Hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza are daily staples, served for weeks at a time. Healthier options are also limited. The salad bar is tiny and filled with tomatoes that aren’t yet ripe, snow peas that are turning brown, and a pasta salad swimming in mayonnaise. There are also a few frightening pieces of fruit: a clutch of bananas nearing the end of their lifespan and apples covered by a mysterious white coating.
“It’s not in keeping with current thinking in terms of nutrition,” says Rosie Schwartz, a registered dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater. “Nowhere near it.” A student needs a balanced diet that includes protein, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products because “food is supposed to provide fuel and give you energy to think and be active,” she says. “When you’ve had a huge portion of fries and a cheeseburger, you’re not going to the gym an hour later. You’re going to feel too lethargic to do it.”
Brock University is by no means the only institution that is failing to serve up satisfactory meals. Student testimony from the campus confidential surveys indicates that cafeteria food at the University of New Brunswick, Acadia University and Université Laval lacks variety; the food at the University of Winnipeg and Ottawa is in desperate need of spicing up; York University students want healthier alternatives; the food at the University of Lethbridge is uninspired; University of Alberta and St. Thomas University students have few vegetarian options; cafeterias at Queen’s and Laurentian University lack selection; and Nipissing University’s food is considered expensive and simply unappealing. At some schools, like Ryerson University, the problem isn’t so much the actual food but the schedule and availability of it. The main food service location in Jorgenson Hall closes at 6:30 p.m. between Monday and Thursday, and during dinner several of the main counters are empty or closed for the day. “It would be nice to eat when you want instead of sometimes rushing,” says Lindsay Jennings, a first-year fashion and design student. No wonder an army of hot dog vendors surrounds the campus.
Yet some universities are striving to offer variety while promoting healthy eating habits. The University of Victoria opened a 197-seat vegetarian/vegan restaurant in 2004 called Village Greens after demand for such meals rose dramatically. Heather Seymour, the university’s food service coordinator, says it has enabled her to offer students healthier food products. “Instead of cheddar process, I can use natural cheddar. Instead of that crappy shredded lettuce, I can use lettuce leaf filets.”
The University of Guelph has also been singled out as one of the leading institutions in the country when it comes to student satisfaction with food. At the Creelman Market Place at the north end of the campus, a cafeteria inspired by the Marché restaurants, the food is as pleasing as the internal layout of the facility. One evening earlier this year, students could chose from an eclectic list of items, including BBQ pork ribs, roast potatoes, baked salmon, beef bourguignon, roast lamb, a 6 oz. steak, a quarter chicken and two types of stir-fries. The salad bar offered everything from yellow peppers, cucumbers, celery and radishes to freshly made Caesar salad and couscous. The fruit stand included watermelon, honeydew, grapes, pineapple and sliced grapefruit, not one item of which was remotely close to expiring. “Our goal is to provide what mom and dad would offer,” says Paul Clark, head of food operations at Guelph University, who estimates that 40 per cent of the food served is made on site. “The food is made in-house so that we don’t get it frozen in a box and just drop it in a deep fryer,” adds David Boeckner, the university’s executive director of hospitality services. Although some students consider the meals pricey, many are thankful for the healthy options. “I love the food,” says Kalie Woodcock, a first-year arts student. “If it’s going to be healthier for me, I’ll pay for it.”
Changes are occurring at other institutions as well. McMaster University recently opened Bridges Café, a cafeteria that caters to vegetarian, vegan and religious diets. At St. Francis Xavier University, a PowerPoint presentation is used at the start of the academic year to educate students about their meal plan, nutritional signs are posted near serving counters to encourage healthy eating habits, and surveys and meetings with students are conducted routinely to elicit feedback. “It’s about listening to what students want,” says Kuli Malhotra, manager of conferences and food services at St. FX. “That is the key objective.” This fall, the University of Toronto became the first university in the country to commit to serving some locally produced items in its cafeterias after teaming up with Local Flavour Plus, a non-profit group that promotes responsible food production in Ontario. Under the agreement, the university has started purchasing some of its milk, fruit, vegetables and other products from farmers and food processors that use few or no pesticides and antibiotics.
On some campuses, students have grown so tired of waiting for their administrations to act that they have initiated their own food projects. At Concordia University, a group of students founded the People’s Potato, a vegan soup kitchen that serves about 300 students each day of the academic year. The Midnight Kitchen project at McGill University, also a vegan soup kitchen, serves 100 to 150 dishes a day. And the food is not only healthy, it’s cheap. Students can make a donation or eat for free. “People have told me they came to the university because of the Potato,” says Benoit Desgreniers, one of the Potato’s full-time staff members.
Perhaps disgruntled students at other universities will take note and begin developing their own food initiative programs. Hopefully their cafeteria food hasn’t made them too lethargic to spring into action.