The Food Network and books about local diets made the connection be-
tween health, empowerment and local economies. Canadians ate it up.
Universities realized they were behind and started contacting food con-
sultants like Mr. Murdoch, who got his first enquiries on transforming
food service eight years ago. Of late, he is deluged with requests: “Now,
every school has some kind of environmental component to their food
A 2013 survey by Farm to Cafeteria Canada, a national organization
connecting institutions to local food, found that 92 percent of the 36
universities and colleges that responded were offering local food, 33 per-
cent had a buy-local food policy and 86 percent were offering education-
al activities related to food. Nonetheless, 81 percent wanted to do more
activities around food in future. Ontario’s Local Food Challenge, which
is encouraging institutions to buy locally, drew in three universities for
its 2014 edition (U of Guelph, University of Toronto Scarborough and
Wilfrid Laurier University).
The philosophical motivations behind the change are multiple. “Food
is so critical to learning. Students need to be alert and aware; they need
access to healthy food,” says Victoria Wakefield, purchasing manager, student housing and hospitality services, at the University of British Columbia.
For first-year students, buying cafeteria food is a learning experience as
their first foray into being a dietary consumer.
Healthy meals lead to an array of health benefits on campus. Celia
White works in a newly created position called healthy community coordinator at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. The former student
food-activist is charged with helping the school develop a more sustainable food system.
“I realize more and more the relevance of my title,” says Ms. White,
“[and that] the most significant and valuable aspect of food work has to do
with health, be it personal, community, animal welfare or environmental
health.” Indeed, many of the projects she’s working on, such as a farmers’
market on campus and a program that gets students working on a farm for
a day in exchange for food, are as much about healthy eating as they are
about community and empowerment.
Fostering an overall healthy campus has internal benefits, as well as
external ones. “Food is an opportunity for a university to define its culture,”
Not surprisingly, institutions with large environmental science or agri-
cultural programs are taking the lead – the connection to their brand is
clear. And most are now using or soliciting research by students and fac-
ulty to improve the campus food system. But other schools are realizing
those dowdy cafeterias and their lukewarm offerings speak loudly about
the school’s values. (To be sure, even those universities that are the most
progressive in serving healthy, delicious local food are home to fast-food
outlets, as well. )
“When was it decided that students were to eat this way?” wonders
Joshna Maharaj, a longtime food activist and, since 2013, Ryerson University’s executive chef and director of food services. “The message the food
service would often be sending is, ‘We don’t care about you enough to do
any better than this.’”
Students lead the change
The University of Manitoba had terrible food. The administration was
perceived to be doing nothing about it, so students such as Julie Rempel
stepped in. When the then-biochemistry undergrad enrolled at U of M on
the outskirts of Winnipeg seven years ago, eating options were cafeterias
filled with prepackaged foods – like white-bread sandwiches in triangular
plastic cases – and fast-food outlets. While taking a nutrition course, Ms.
Rempel connected with the professor and fellow students who thought
food choices, waste and hunger on campus could be improved.
Ms. Rempel began years of advocacy work at the university, which
serves nearly 40,000 people, with limited success. But in 2012 she helped
form the University of Manitoba Campus Food Strategy Group, and it
received funding from the Campus Food Systems Project, run by Meal
Exchange, for a two-year pilot project to pay Ms. Rempel for a few hours
of her work every week. The group did an informal campus survey – in
which students said they were unhappy with the food and wanted cheaper
and healthier options – and brought administrators, food-service provider
Aramark Canada and students together for meetings. That was a big deal
at the time. “There was a lot of tension between students, staff and the
food-service provider,” she recalls.
“When was it decided that students were to eat
this way? The message was, ‘We don’t care about you
enough to do any better than this.’”