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
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 sustain-
able 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.
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.