Things started to change when Ms. Rempel found champions at U of
M and with Aramark. The food improved a bit; for instance, sushi appeared in cafeterias. In the summer of 2013, U of M put out a request
for proposals on its food-service contract, and the campus food strategy
group was invited to the table. In early 2014, the school hired Ms. Rempel
to help it put together a baseline assessment of the state of its catering and
all food-related activities on campus.
“That pretty much for us was a huge sign that the university was taking
this seriously,” she says. Now, the school’s main cafeteria is being renovated
and will reopen with no fast-food outlets. The administration is on board
to better understand and improve its entire food system.
According to Ms. Archibald of Meal Exchange, while many schools
are moving a better dietary agenda forward internally, the non-profit she
works for has been in touch with student groups at about one-third of
Canadian universities. “Most changes are being led by students,” she says.
But when students try to trigger change like that at U of M, it’s often tough:
they’re not paid to put in the time needed, procurement is pivotal, and
often they aren’t well enough connected to know what’s going on food-wise in every corner of campus.
Yet Ryerson’s rapid transformation, triggered by students, has become
something of a model. Starting in late 2012, students started staging a mini-revolt. They complained about food quality and prices, spoke with the media
about the fact that the school was paying its food-service provider $5.6 million for losses incurred at school cafeterias, and proposed a new system that
would involve taking food service in-house. Ryerson hired Ms. Maharaj and
gave her the budget and power to transform the school’s food- service philosophy and offerings, and she did so in just a year. Under a new provider,
Chartwells, Ryerson has become a national leader with its increase in local
procurement and more cooking from scratch. Its Friendly Fiver – every day,
the cafeterias offer a hot meal for just $5 – have been widely copied.
Ryerson’s pivot has a lot to do with Ms. Maharaj’s passion and expertise (she had already improved food services at two Toronto hospitals)
but also with the fact that Ryerson is simply not feeding a lot of people.
While the Ryerson community numbers 42,000, few students live on
campus and they have 300 outside food options within a 10-minute walk
from campus. Hence the school needs to operate only two cafeterias,
along with several food kiosks.
Bringing food services in-house
According to Ms. Archibald, 75 percent of Canadian colleges and universities contract out their food procurement and preparation. UBC, which
feeds 68,000 people, is self-operated, and that has allowed it to pull off a
food transformation in four years.
Ms. Wakefield, UBC’s hospitality purchasing manager, buys for the
nine chefs and 34-plus food outlets on campus. Since 2011, she has systematically revamped food on campus as part of UBC’s drive to become
more sustainable. She now formally defines what “local” means for UBC
(grown, raised or processed within 150 miles of campus), and measures
that ( 48 per cent currently), and reports numbers back to the university.
Food services buys certified sustainable seafood and fair trade coffee and
has undertaken to reduce waste, use electric vehicles and compost garbage.
Ms. Wakefield brushes off the time challenges of nosing out local alter-
natives. “It’s an excuse, a total excuse. When you’re in procurement, that’s
your job.” She also argues that local food is not more pricey. “It’s always
cheaper. And when you buy fresh and it’s perishable, you’re doing more just-
in-time purchasing so you don’t have as much waste.”
As an added incentive, investing in this type of sustainable and better
food may pay off financially over time. At UBC, sales over the last five years
have been up more than 50 percent – a skewed number, admits Ms. Wake-
field, because the school has opened more food outlets. The school recently
launched a new pizzeria that’s been so busy it hit capacity in the first month.
“We built that for the long term,” she says, “and clearly we didn’t build it
For those working with outside caterers, change is possible but it takes
more steps. Signing a new contract helps. Ryerson says it’s partnering with
Chartwells to find new local suppliers, to change company policy on buy-
ing from an on-campus garden and to train staff to cook more meals from
But without on-campus leaders working in positions related to food
service, many small food-related initiatives go unsung and unnoticed. For
instance, a communal garden at Université de Sherbooke was started by students in 2009 with $1,000 in seed money from the school’s sustainability
department. For the 20 or so students who plant, harvest and socialize at
the 250 square-metre plot, it provides fresh food, an ongoing project, and a
chance to meet people from across the campus.
“When you buy fresh, you’re doing
more just-in-time purchasing so you don’t
have as much waste.”