Claiming the right to eat & live well

Grant Bishop, Sci ’03
Grant Bishop, Sci ’03

Back in first year, my floormate Pete, a native of Salt Spring Island—that gulf island refuge for ex-hippie confirmed-yuppies out in B.C.— who grew up on the sea’s harvest, took quick exception to the Leonard cafeteria servings that were to constitute our new diet. Food was central to Pete and he viewed what he ate as more than just sustenance but something almost spiritual. But to opt-out from that mandatory meal plan was to accept eviction to the Siberian wilds of West Campus and so, by the end of first semester, Pete had procured a doctor’s note claiming distress and he was released from the plan. In our Leonard kitchen, we would chide Pete enviously on his clever circumvention of Reslife’s didactic bureaucracy. Pete countered that something more important had been at stake: his right to eat well.

The landmark Super Size Me—Morgan Furlong’s vitriolic indictment of our fast food industry in which the filmmaker-cum-guinea-pig attempts a strict diet of McDonald’s food for a month—hit the theatres this past May. My own mother is an advocate of whole and natural foods, so I expected the flick to tell me nothing new. At a critical segment Furlong reveals the villain behind the saturation of the cafeterias of educational institutions far and wide across the continent with greasy and heavily-processed slop of questionable nutritional value.

The audience let out a great groan in unison: the corporate culprit was none other than our friendly-neighbourhood Sodexho-Marriot. Leaving the theatre, one moviegoer issued an ironic comment, saying “Yeah, but nobody eats that stuff for every meal.” Au contraire. A trip to any of the dining halls on campus will reveal quite the opposite. It was then that the realization dawned upon me: the decisive battle for the food we eat was not along the neon fast food strips of suburbia or in the promenade food courts, it was right here, in our bustling cafeterias.

Uncannily, it was also this past May that a food fight erupted in the newly renovated Leonard cafeteria. The incident left administrators and students alike feeling infuriated and shaking their heads at the utter puerility of the Animal House antics. The heavy hand came down and the cafeteria was closed that weekend to the dismay of students at the edge of their examination season. Yet, in a letter to the Journal during the summer, Ray Lau, Sci ‘07, drawing from the dietary misery of his first year compatriots, made an astute observation, charging “that this food fight may also be fuelled in part by the anger of the students towards the operations and management of the cafeteria itself.” I disagree. The food fight was a disgraceful and utterly juvenile show, demonstrating indefensible disrespect for our campus and disregard for the cafeteria employees. It fulfilled none of the qualifications for a legitimate action of civil disobedience. However, while any justification for the food fight may be totally frivolous, Lau’s analysis of student sentiment towards the food quality in our cafeterias is quite precise. From websites urging students to steal from the cafeteria to the infamous Ban Righ riot, no other campus institution has been the focal point of such student enmity. We just can’t get around it: students hate our cafeteria food and, by either association or causation, they despise its purveyor, Sodexho-Marriot.

We subject every first year student living on main campus to a mandatory, all-you-can-eat meal-plan, in which you are automatically enrolled.

The point is not that students should be cooking their own meals, the point is that our food should be healthy. Instead, we construct our cafeterias in such a manner that the most deleterious foods are the most accessible.

The pre-renovation Leonard caf had a Firehouse station with one cook on the grill serving each individual order. The new Leonard houses a super-efficient assembly line that pumps out burgers and fries in record time with a crew of four or five during a rush. While you can snatch your basket and bust from the Grill in seconds flat, across the way the vegetarian station hosts a long line attended by a single server. We make the most fattening and unhealthy foods the most accessible. What is most reproachable is not the food quality but the active exclusion of students from representation on this issue. There is no component of student life in which accountability and transparency to students are so absent as in our food service provision. Consultations on food service issues are of that laughable lip-service sort where student opinions are duly recorded and neatly shelved. Indeed, our food services seem ruled like a private fiefdom, subject to the unilateralism and condescension of campus food services director, Bruce Griffiths, who has fervently resisted any student inroads to exact accountability from his portfolio.

The University’s contract with Sodexho, which governs its monopoly over our food services, has not been seen in its entirety by any student leader and, from the inception of Common Ground to the proposed ILC Queen’s Tea Room, Griffiths has been unwavering in his opposition to the creation of any healthy food service alternatives by students. Leaving a meeting with Griffiths, in which he will inevitably proffer select generalized qualifications of the mysterious contract as if he were the mouthpiece of words from Sinai, one is invariably confused whether his de facto employer is the University or Sodexho.

Whenever pressed on the exact deal with Sodexho, Griffiths invariably responded that the food service contract is confidential and that students are prohibited from knowing how what they eat is determined. It’s time to ask the tough questions. What precisely is in that contract? Why isn’t there greater student oversight of our food service operations? Why is Griffiths so opposed to student-run food services? And why was the Sodexho contract renewed four years ago without student consultation and with the abject dismissal of concerns over food quality from student leaders?

The quality of the food we eat is central to students’ physical and mental well-being and, therefore, to their academic success. If improper nutrition leaves students fatigued and sickened, we’re not fulfilling a central component of our mandate for education of mind, body and soul. In our classrooms we lecture on nutrition, research corporate influence in our food supply, debate over international food security and deconstruct the fast food ethic, yet we fail to make the connection on these concepts to our daily eating. So pervasive are those issues here that they can no longer be ignored. The battles now underway for student-run food service alternatives are preliminary volleys to coming loggerheads over student empowerment within the coming Queen’s Centre. Who will decide what food is available in our new student-life facility? Will student societies have the necessary authority to demand quality and provide local alternatives? We preach our mission of citizens and leaders for a global society and yet withhold students from effective advocacy on the very stuff of life: the food we eat. It’s time for that long-sought transparency and accountability of our food supply, and it’s up to us as students to demand it, either through strong collegial representation or, failing that, diplomacy by other means.

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