Editorial: Working Towards Better Food Services at Concordia

Graphic Sam Jones

Concordia University’s food services are approaching a crossroad and its students are hoping to have a say in its new direction.

On Sunday, the Concordia Student Union organized and hosted a daylong event called “Concordia Transitions.” Jam-packed with speakers and workshops that included everything from learning how to make sauerkraut in a jar to understanding how food activism plays an essential part of social movements, Transitions is only one initiative demonstrating that students care about what they eat.

The university’s 12-year contract with multinational food service Chartwells will reach its conclusion at the semester’s end. A request for proposal (RFP) for a new campus-wide food service provider has not yet been released, despite assurances from university spokesperson Chris Mota last month that it would be ready by the end of January or early February. This was after she told The Link that its release would come sometime at the end of last semester.

This delay in the public procurement process is likely frustrating to the players looking to bid in the RFP, especially for the new, less established bidders who have never dealt with such a legal document before. The Concordia Food Coalition is coordinating with one such bidder. A consortium of potentially eight local food vendors is teaming up to try to steer university administrators into uncharted yet groundbreaking, and indeed welcome, territory.

At a collaborative event last month with the charity Meal Exchange, CFC members expressed that they were working “blindly” in the bidding process, as they only have the previous, clearly outdated RFP document from 2002 to advise their consortium with. “If you’re not giving us anything, you’re only making it easy for a corporation [that] has these business models already to successfully bid on the RFP,” Lauren Aghabozorgi, the coalition’s office coordinator, told The Link last month.

The process of learning when the RFP, a public document, becomes available is problematic, since the university is under no obligation to inform any bidder about its release. In fact, Aghabozorgi and her team are responsible for checking, on a daily basis, the difficult-to-navigate, province-run website where the bidding process on government contracts are announced.

After the RFP’s unveiling, bidders will only have roughly 20 days to create a business proposal, which Aghabozorgi understandably calls “unreasonable.” Most telling of all, Aghabozorgi said the administration might have chosen a successor and will “greenwash” their model to appease students asking for more sustainable options. If her suspicions are true, then this is a troubling realization to grasp.

The Link would like to endorse the consortium bid or any other potential alternative over a multinational or national corporation like Chartwells, Aramark or Sodexo. This isn’t simple anti-corporation sentiment; Chartwells and companies like them have repeatedly demonstrated incompetence and corporate irresponsibility.

In a feature last semester, Newton Jr. Jegu, the general manager of Concordia Food Services and a representative of Chartwells, said he was unable to accommodate a handful of first-year students who have food allergies and live in residence (and are thus required to buy into a meal plan) due to constraints from their third-party food supplier Sysco. He said his staff is at the mercy of Sysco, which doesn’t keep up-to-date on specific dietary products and trends.

It’s a legitimate excuse but also a transferring of blame, a passing of the buck due to a corporate division of labour which in itself is a method to keep costs to a minimum.

Can these companies, who register profit in the millions, not handle the needs of a few students like Anisa Ben-Saud, who has Celiac disease and had to supplement her $1,975 meal plan with approximately $400 of vitamins and gluten-free groceries every month?

This is without mentioning students who choose specific diets like veganism. There’s only so much sans fromage pizza and salad that one can eat. So if another corporation is chosen, what comes next for students? The possibility of the university making more kiosks available for rent by student organizations on both campuses exists.

Also, the Hive Café co-ops, which are located on both the Loyola and downtown campuses, are currently thriving and will most likely only grow in membership. Hopefully more co-ops will be opened on and around both campuses, as making students key stakeholders in what they eat is as important in terms of diet as it is in reducing exploitation.

Not all is doom and gloom; no decision has been made and the administration has demonstrated a willingness to discuss the future of food at Concordia with students. Maybe at this crossroad, the university will follow Robert Frost’s wisdom and take the road less traveled by. It could make all the difference.