Editorial: Concordia’s Food Contract Shows Improvements, But Still Isn’t What We Need

Graphic Madeleine Gendreau

On-campus food will look a little different for the next five years, but Concordia’s new food service contract is still a long way from becoming an example of community and sustainability.

Months have passed since the university announced Aramark as its new food provider. The contract began on June 1, but most of the nine locations are still being renovated.

If there’s one thing Montreal is good at, it’s food. There’s no lack in variety, if you make it past the Second Cups to the family-run bakeries and restaurants across the city.

Which is why it’s difficult to understand why Concordia isn’t innovating in its food services. Université de Montréal and UQÀM operate their own food services and don’t force students in residence to buy a meal plan. Even McGill is making concrete efforts to improve food on campus, moving away from ready-made items towards setting quotas for certified produce. And it lost its lonely Tim Horton’s last year, replacing it with a Première Moisson bakery.

Time has passed since 2001, when Sodexho-Marriott (now Sodexo) ran Concordia’s food services, and the student-run group Residents Against Sodexho demanded changes after 37 students in residence suffered food poisoning from eating chicken fajitas in the Loyola cafeteria.

Students wanted a refund; instead they got some free juice and snacks, and by May 31, 2002, Sodexho was out of the Concordia food-providing business, replaced by another multinational corporation: Chartwells. What followed was 13 years of uninspiring menus that were actually punishment for students with dietary restrictions.

Aramark’s proposal is slightly revolutionary in comparison. But that doesn’t mean Concordia should stop striving to become the UBC of Eastern Canada when it comes to food.

Aramark has been praised just this year for its green and ethical practices, but the company is still dealing with backlash from food safety issues in Michigan prisons throughout 2014.

The university’s requirement for locally sourced produce within a 500 km radius is encouraging, but without any way of verifying whether Concordia has graduated beyond Sysco as a food provider, those promises may prove empty.

Aramark has been praised just this year for its green and ethical practices, but the company is still dealing with backlash from food safety issues in Michigan prisons throughout 2014.

A commitment to provide healthy food to students is also a step forward, but it’s in no way groundbreaking.

Installing a new Starbucks in the LB Building, for example, is definitely not an accomplishment; the LB Building is all of a one-minute walk away from the nearest Starbucks beside Place Norman-Bethune (the next closest Starbucks is in the Faubourg, a two-minute walk from there). And we won’t even talk about Tim Horton’s presence downtown.

Changes in standards could very well solve the issues faced by students with dietary restrictions, but contracting the nutritional needs of 900 students to a multinational based in Philadelphia is still a far cry from promoting local business, especially when many of the alternative dining options are also multinational franchises.

Financially, the meal plan should also fit into a student’s budget. With the $3,800 All-U-Care-to-Eat Meal Plan (a nice twist on the “all-you-can-eat” plans, which give students the wrong idea about food consumption) and the $190 Dining Dollars Plan, getting fed in rez costs $3,990.

Self-serve stations on each campus are included with the Aramark meal plan, giving students access to groceries and kitchen space so they can prepare food themselves, which is welcome, along with promises of vegetarian, vegan and foods to accommodate dietary restrictions.

But anyone with severe allergies is still taking a chance eating in rez and, unsurprisingly, there’s very little Aramark can do about that.

Their FAQ states “students with severe food allergies or restrictions should note that we cannot guarantee the total prevention of cross-contamination in prepared foods.”

The university has admitted that student residence might not be for everyone, because meal plans don’t fit everyone’s needs. In reality, mandatory meal plans don’t fit everyone’s needs. Concordia should focus on offering residences that encourage students to be self-sufficient adults (i.e. furnished with kitchens that don’t require parental supervision).

With food services set to begin operating soon in all nine locations across both campuses, there’s still no public information on what will be offered. The fall menus and hours of operation weren’t available online on Aug. 24, although services are supposed to be offered as of Aug. 29.

A new Tim Horton’s at Loyola’s SP Building will offer what every other Tim Horton’s in the city (maybe the world) is offering—although the proposed “Euro-Market” is a little more ambiguous.

The Loyola Campus could use some new food outlets, but instead of financing a new mega coffee franchise, Concordia would do better to support student-run initiatives like the G-Lounge or the Hive Café—the same goes for The Hive in the Hall building and Café X in EV and VA buildings downtown—which provide decent food (though some items are better-priced than others) as well as a space accessible to everyone.

This article originally appeared in Volume 36, Issue 1, published August 24, 2015.