“The garden is really a melting pot. I get to meet people from other fac-ulties,” says Michèle Provencher, an environmental studies undergrad
who’s coordinator of the garden. But the garden scrapes by on limited
resources – the tiny room in a nearby building it uses for its tools and
seedlings, she says, is “not really appropriate.” While the university had a
nutritionist doing food education on campus, and another group is trying
to build a greenhouse, the gardeners don’t have the resources or the incentive to connect with these and other food groups.
Indeed, tapping into existing resources remains one of the biggest
challenges for institutions trying to overhaul their approach to food. Even
U of Guelph started buying from its own research stations only five years
ago. “I don’t think that anyone ever thought about it before,” observes
Mr. Kenny. (He’s been planning to connect with the university’s station
in Quebec that produces its own maple syrup, but it simply hasn’t happened yet.)
But, as schools push forward with revitalizing their food systems,
they tend to connect with campus gardens and fruit-tree picking groups,
as well as with nutrition, environmental and food service research projects that can actually help them improve the food service even more.
Meanwhile, even the most organized sustainable food operation needs
to keep innovating. Mr. Kenny has been trying for years to get a permanent
composting program running. At U of Manitoba, Ms. Rempel laments the
lack of ethnically diverse foods to properly serve both Canadian and international students.
Another key ingredient is spreading the word. To the untrained eye and
What’s on the menu at more Canadian schools
taste bud, a salad dressing from a bin and a homemade one using local
ingredients may seem the same. Again, U of Guelph excels at this with
extensive signage plus an active social media presence. Hospitality’s Twitter
feed is busy with announcements of cafeteria specials and pictures of
burgers slathered with bacon. According to Mr. Murdoch, the food ser-
vices consultant, the communications has to be timely and authentic.
“You have to be able to tell an honest story. Students won’t be tricked.”
Indeed, that authenticity is the defining feature of universities leading
when it comes to what’s on the plate. “The schools that are doing better
at this see it as part of their mission, not just as a part of operations,”
says Mr. Murdoch. If education in Canada starts to taste better across the
board, that’s good for everyone.
Dal currently expects to be serving 35 percent local,
sustainable and fair food. The biggest push at the
Maritime school is for a new approach to seafood.
It has begun a relationship with Off The Hook, a local
fishing co-op, to buy what’s in abundance as the
seasons change, and four of its dining halls are Marine
Stewardship Council certified. Food service at Dal is
also working towards a goal of creating zero waste and
using more green cleaning products.
In June 2014, the undergraduate student association,
which goes by the acronym CADEUL, took over
the management of one of the university’s main
cafeterias from a private firm and hired two well-known
restaurateurs as manager and executive chef. The
renamed Saveurs Campus offers healthy food options
using local ingredients, where possible, including lots
of vegetarian offerings and no fried food. The chef and
manager say the aim is to become “a reference point
in Canada for student cafeterias.”
University of Winnipeg
This small, downtown campus – once called out by
Maclean’s for having some of the worst university food
in the country – dropped its large caterer five years ago.
It’s now fed by Diversity Foods, a company partially
owned by the university and headed up by executive
chef Ben Kramer. The company cooks from scratch,
buys local, sustainable and fair-trade products and even
does much of its own butchering. Next move: taking
over a campus greenhouse and growing more produce
for campus kitchens.
Food service here used to struggle to break even.
Then student advocates and administrators joined
together to revamp the university’s catering contract
to cover just 40 percent of the food on campus, using
smaller operators for the rest. McGill’s food is now
mostly homemade and recipes get scrutinized by a
dietitian. In 2009, McGill started buying from its own
100-year-old research and teaching farm, and the
Macdonald Campus farm now supplies 30,000 kilos
of produce to the school every year.