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.