The new beef with campus food

There are more options than ever, but they come at a price
Jessica Darmanin

This story is from the 132-page Maclean’s University Rankings, on sale now.

Katie Cvitkovitch, a second-year nutrition student at Ryerson University in Toronto, knows how to spot a healthy meal. One evening in September, she assessed the options in the dining hall on the first floor of Pitman Hall residence. For $13.25, she could buy a grilled chicken-breast sandwich, a side garden salad with fat-free dressing and a bottle of diet iced tea. It cost the same as the deadlier deep-fried version, with fries and a Sprite. As a former vegan, Cvitkovitch was pleased to see vegan shepherd’s pie beside the meat- and-potatoes version. Even the Tim Hortons on campus carries a vegan wrap. Cvitkovitch gives Ryerson’s food a high rating.

Her classmate Deanna Chong, also in nutrition, gives Ryerson decent marks too. She had no trouble finding a balanced meal: a turkey wrap, milk and a melon cup for $14.28. (Those with meal cards pay five to 15 per cent less.)

Still, neither student eats much at the campus dining halls or fast-food outlets run by Ryerson Food Services, the main food provider on campus. “Lunch is like 10 bucks and dinner is like 15,” says Cvitkovitch, “so that’s $25 a day that I don’t have.” A student who managed to spend $5 less daily for one academic year would save roughly $1,000.

Universities once had a reputation for offering unhealthy food, and not enough choice. But as the heat lamps and deep fryers are replaced with vegan alternatives and halal meats, some students say they have a new problem: it’s too expensive to eat on campus. Whether food is provided in-house (via a combination of school-owned franchises and old-style dining halls) or contracted out to a single institutional provider, universities are finding it difficult to meet the multitude of demands while also keeping prices in check.

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James Booth, who oversees food services at the University of Lethbridge, says the food has evolved since he arrived in 1994. “Before, you could have a hamburger or cheeseburger and those were the choices,” he says. Now the grill restaurant on campus, one of the many outlets operated by food provider Sodexo, offers salmon burgers, side salads and sweet potato fries.

Some say that’s still not enough choice. As the university prepares to sign a new food provision contract, Booth has held meetings to solicit feedback. Some want more gluten-free alternatives, some want more international food and others want the cafeteria to be more sustainable. He’s also heard the message from president Mike Mahon, who wants Lethbridge to become “a destination university.” Good food is a part of the draw.

Sodexo, one of three corporations being considered for the contract, looks set to deliver. The company brought celebrity chef Michael Smith, known for the sustainable dishes he’s prepared on his Food Network TV shows and in his cookbooks, to Lethbridge in October. He told the local newspaper he was scouting a potential grill restaurant for the campus.

Andrew Parr oversees food at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, where the operation is run by university staff and includes both traditional dining halls and fast-food franchises owned by the school. A foot-long Subway chicken sandwich with drink and chips costs $12.64, while a chicken burger with side salad and iced tea costs $11.75 (again, five per cent less for those with meal plans).

Parr says it’s a challenge to keep costs down, because UBC Food Services is community-oriented, not profit-oriented. That means doing things the community values, even if they cost more. In residences, there may be one or two students who have gluten allergies, several who are vegan, some who want halal and others who follow a kosher diet. “Providing all of that diversity for a very small market is a huge challenge from a cost perspective,” says Parr. Similarly, students expect food outlets to be open after most others have left campus following exams in December and April. That means running at a loss. Then there’s the fact that UBC brands itself as sustainable, putting pressure on Food Services to buy local vegetables, fish that’s certified sustainable and compostable packaging.

Another challenge for Parr is labour costs. Like Ryerson’s food-service workers, but unlike Lethbridge’s, UBC’s workers are unionized. UBC’s food workers shut down service at Pacific Spirit Place, the centre of campus cafeterias, for one day in October—the move was partly over pay, though UBC already offers more than what similar jobs off campus pay. A sandwich maker or cashier in his third year on the job at UBC would make $17.02 per hour, while his supervisor would earn $22.86. With benefits, that makes employees on campus more than twice as expensive as people earning a $10.25 minimum wage. It’s not easy to run a food court this way. “We all support the notion of providing a living wage to our employees,” says Parr, but “that obviously has to be offset by the economic realities.”

At the end of the day, UBC’s Food Services can’t lose money. In fact, it is expected to make a profit: between one and three per cent of sales. For each of the past three years, it has done so, paying $650,000 to the university. The pressure on prices—and student bank accounts—is obvious.

So is it possible to have your vegan cake and afford it too? Chef Ben Kramer, the man behind Diversity Food Services (DFS) at the University of Winnipeg, believes so. Known for his local organic creations as the chef at Dandelion Eatery, Kramer was approached by the university in 2009 to overhaul its system after a Maclean’s University Rankings article panned the food.

“When we went into the freezer, there was a plastic tube sleeve of burgers that were already cooked with grill marks on them, that came up from Texas or someplace,” says Kramer. “They were just heating them up.” The dry-storage area was lined with jugs of factory-made dressing.

The university remade the food in partnership with SEED Winnipeg, a community organization that trains people who are hard to employ. The workers get $12.25 per hour on average, plus benefits. Revenue was up by $1 million during the first year. By year two, DFS was paying profits back to the school. Today, the burgers are made from beef ground on-site, the dry-storage area is full of vegetables in Mason jars, the fries are hand-cut from local organic potatoes and the dressing is made from scratch. “It’s definitely more work,” says Kramer. “It’d be way easier for me to phone one supplier to order everything, and not use the 80-plus that we have,” he says.

Chef Kramer’s food is affordable. The residence meal plan breaks down to about $9.38 per meal. Kramer says they try to keep students from spending more than $30 per day.

Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., is trying another idea, an all-you-care-to-eat model where students without meal cards pay $9.15 for breakfast, $12 for lunch and $14.45 for dinner—$35.60 in all. Arsal Shah, a second-year business student, took to Twitter over the new prices. Now, instead of going to the dining hall, he heads out for a $5 pizza slice with pop, or an $8 shawarma. “The food is cheaper off campus.”