No Student-Led Bid on Concordia’s Food Contract Forthcoming

The Concordia Food Coalition’s Plans to Bid on University Food Contract Fall Through

Photo Elysia Marie-Campbell

For months, students involved in the Concordia Food Coalition have been working to bring together various organic, locavore and vegetarian restaurants and cafés to bid on Concordia’s food services contract. However, a key player recently decided to pull out of the initiative, meaning there won’t be a CFC-led bid after all.

Concordia’s contract with food service provider Chartwells expires in May. With that in mind, the university is currently holding an open bidding process with the goal of determining what company will be awarded the next contract.

“It’s been hard to get students involved because it’s a really complicated process,” said CFC coordinator Lauren Aghabozorgi. “There’s a lot of conditions […] that wouldn’t allow an institution like the Hive Café Co-op to submit a bid.”

When the CFC was created two years ago, one of its main goals was to propose an alternative to Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark, the major cafeteria operators on Canadian university campuses.

Since 2013, the CFC has tried to get socially responsible entrepreneurs around a table to “look at the different spaces on campus and see who had the capacity to take care of the residence cafeterias and serve 900 meals a day, and who would be better off having a small café kiosk,” Aghabozorgi said. However, it became apparent in the last six months that such a loose consortium of cafés and restaurants wouldn’t meet the university’s requirements for bidding on the contract.

“We needed a sort of umbrella organization to be the bidder. We started speaking to an organization called COOPSCO, which is very prominent in French universities and CEGEPs,” Aghabozorgi said. “They [run] a lot of co-op bookstores, but they do have certain projects in cafeterias.”

The idea, she said, was to propose to the university that COOPSCO operate the larger cafeterias, while smaller businesses or student-run initiatives would run the different food counters and coffee shops around campus.

According to Aghabozorgi, COOPSCO had been “very keen” to move forward with a bid until a couple of weeks ago, when the CFC was told the organization was stepping down from the project. COOPSCO did not respond to The Link’s request for comment before press time.

“We’ve just gotten really bad news and we don’t really know where to go from here,” she said.

The university’s bidding process began on Feb. 11, when Concordia posted a request for proposals (RFP) on the Système électronique d’appel d’offres, the Quebec government’s website for public procurement. Concordia held a four-hour mandatory meeting with potential bidders just a week later, on Feb. 18. Aghabozorgi said the meeting revealed who was interested in the contract.

“We were given a document that had the list of other bidders there, and it was Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. We know pretty much the fate of our food system at this point,” she said.

The deadline to submit a bid was originally March 6. However, “the university received a request for an extension and the university agreed,” said Chris Mota, Concordia’s director of media relations. The university will continue to accept bids until March 20.

The RFP is composed of over 800 pages detailing the university’s requirements and expectations for the winning bidder. All of the bids will be judged based on whether or not they meet the criteria described within the RFP documents.

“Concordia University is using this bidding process, in accordance with provincial legislation, to ensure transparency in opening the process to all qualifying vendor [sic] and suppliers in an open competition,” the university states in an FAQ document on its website.

The RFP documents are the result of a consultation process that began in 2013, when university administrators brought together students and faculty members to evaluate Concordia’s food system and look at ways in which it could be improved. The CFC was involved in the resulting Food Advisory Working Group until they started to plan their own bid, at which point they were asked to step aside in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

A post on Concordia’s website promises “unprecedented sustainable practices” as part of the new food contract, which “focuses on nutrition and local sourcing.”

The university already requires Chartwells to use only Canadian dairy products and free-range eggs, but it will expect more of the bidder awarded the new contract, noting that “the chosen supplier will also be required to make annual increases in such responsible purchasing practices as fair-trade coffee, sustainable seafood, organic and ethically-raised products.”

According to the RFP documents, 75 per cent of produce will have to be seasonal and local during the summer months, dropping to 50 per cent in the fall and 25 per cent in the winter and spring. All of the beef sold by the winning bidder will have to be Canadian, while 15 per cent of chicken and 70 per cent of fresh pork will be Quebec-raised.

Aghabozorgi said the university did take students’ concerns into account, pointing out, for instance, that this contract will be for only five years. That’s far shorter than the previous 12-year contract with Chartwells.

Still, Aghabozorgi remains skeptical about the possibility of a more local and sustainable food system at the university. The bidding process “is just designed for a corporation,” she said.

“Organic farmers can’t possibly bid on this, local business owners can’t possibly bid on this,” she added. “It’s really designed for a corporation that has [supplies] that come from all over the place, […] so I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of issues around sustainable food procurement that aren’t being satisfied.”

For Aghabozorgi, the way forward for the CFC involves refocusing on “incubating student-run initiatives again.”

“I think it might be better for us to concentrate on more grassroots-style projects or just bottom-up projects rather than trying to integrate ourselves in these top-down structures,” she said.

UPDATE: In an email to The Link, Claude Rhéaume, COOPSCO’s director of business development and marketing, wrote that the organization did “give a lot of thoughts [to] going forward in the bidding,” but ultimately decided that they “weren’t prepared enough in order to present a professional response.”

“After a very close examination of all the documents related to the bidding process, we arrived at the conclusion that we couldn’t be ready to meet [the] closing date,” he said.

“Even with the extension provided, the timing was unfortunate for us, as we are in the process of recruiting a new director in charge of food services development at COOPSCO; that would have been crucial in building the bidding response.”