An orchard of options

Successful universities move to provide students with an abundance of healthy options in campus dining facilities


Student desire for healthier food options is driving Ontario universities to build better menus to tempt the taste buds of their conscious consumers.

In 2012, a survey done by The Globe and Mail ranked Queen’s second in overall student satisfaction with on-campus dining. The University of Guelph ranked first, with schools like Western falling not far behind in the top ten.

But what makes these campuses so successful? Why are students so pleased with their dining experiences?

The answer seems to lie in choice. Students are happy with healthier and more abundant options, according to university administrators. Universities are also focusing more on local and made-from-scratch items in their dining facilities.

“The motto here is scratch, and scratch is best,” said Joli Manson, general manager of Sodexo at Queen’s.

From doughnuts to the fish in the salmon salad sandwiches and your eggs for breakfast, everything is cooked fresh and from scratch in-house.

“In our world, what we’ve really noticed is that there are students that have different requirements in terms of their dietary needs,” Manson said. “If we control what goes into it we can honestly and authentically say ‘yes, this is fine’ or ‘no, this is not for you.’” Keeping food local is also an important value for Queen’s food services, she added.

Local farmers are invited into dining halls to meet students and showcase their in-season items. The food services then use them to prepare locally-based meals.

Menu-building is focused on local produce and students are sought out to give their feedback.

“We do have [branded outlets] because students really love them. But the brands we’ve selected are quite specific,” Manson said, noting places like Pita Pit, where students can build their own healthy pitas with veggies, or Booster Juice, whose yogurt is made from scratch.

Popular campus outlets like the Canadian Grilling Company follow healthy eating values by buying local proteins and vegetables, while also making condiments like ketchup from scratch.

“We care a lot about what you eat, and we know if we can prepare it in the very best way possible, that you will get the best possible result,” Manson said.

Queen’s has held an Eat Smart certificate for many years — an award program for Ontario campuses, workplaces or recreation centers that meet standards for providing nutritional and safe food handling. There’s a buffet-style environment in the three cafeterias on campus, on a rotating menu schedule designed to give students choice. Staff also include standard items such as a grilled cheese daily.

“What we’re doing is looking at food trends and seeing what it is that students are selecting,” she said.

While healthy choices are promoted, other options are available as well.

“Our belief is that if you want a hamburger that day because you’ve been good all week, than you should get to have that hamburger,” said Bruce Griffiths, executive director of Housing and Ancillary Services at Queen’s.

He noted that Queen’s guides students to healthier options through a “social marketing intervention” program — a series of symbols placed by certain stations or foods in the dining hall indicating their nutritious and dietary value.

Griffiths said the program’s objective aligns with recent studies showing students will gravitate towards healthier options if they are there and easily identifiable.

Griffiths noted that partnering with Sodexo allows the University access to a wide array of resources, recipes and nutritional information.

“The nature of our contract is that the University really can guide food services, with Sodexo’s support,” he said. “I think this is a good fit for us.”

Unlike Queen’s, the University of Guelph runs its own dining facilities without a contractor like Sodexo. Instead, its facilities are run through the University itself.

At Guelph, there’s an à la carte dining environment that charges students per menu item. Students are encouraged to move around to the many branded outlets or dining halls on campus.

“Our whole attitude at Guelph is choice, choice, choice,” said Sheila Attwell, the marketing manager of Hospitality Services at the University of Guelph.

In Guelph’s non-branded shops on campus, like its dining halls, all food is developed from scratch and designed with students’ needs and desires in mind. Local food is also very important to Guelph, with 45 per cent of their fresh in-season produce coming from local farmers through the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative.

Consultation with dietitians and students is important to the development of Guelph’s menus, which are built by experienced chefs that enhance the creativity and variety of food available, she added.

“We evolve every year,” she said. “Eating styles, eating trends, nutrition information changes every year so we change with it.”

The Student Nutrition Awareness Program (SNAP) is an on-campus program at Guelph which aims to provide nutrition education student-to-student.

SNAP has a program to reward students for making healthy choices — frequent user cards that award students with free food after ten purchases of healthy food items included on their “Breakfast Energy” and “Fresh Fruit” cards.

Western University also practices a similar program. They have a frequent-buyer program for products like fresh vegetables and fruits or dairy products to reward and encourage healthy purchases.

Western University Hospitality Services, ranked eighth in overall food satisfaction in The Globe and Mail survey, uses a declining balance system that charges students for the specific items they’re eating.

“It’s not an all-you-care-to-eat because, as a nutritionist, I would argue that it encourages students to overeat,” said Anne Zok, nutrition manager at Western’s Hospitality Services.

“I just don’t think our students need that kind of pressure.”

Zok said that eating facilities have been upgraded over the years to accommodate students’ cravings for custom-made meals.

Giving students access to healthy options is a “corporate responsibility,” Zok said, which comes before the cost of the food.

Western is also self-operated like Guelph, overseeing anything to do with food on campus, with the exception of student-run eateries.

28 per cent of food services at universities in Canada and approximately six out of the top 20 universities ranked by The Globe and Mail survey are completely self-operated.

Nutrition education and student interaction is also important to Western, she said. Food Resource and Education for Student Health (FRESH), is an initiative at Western to educate students on the importance of healthy eating. Their “FRESH Approved” icons are used to flag optimal options for the student diet — similar to the symbols at Queen’s.

Locality is also a key factor in their menu development, with 43 per cent of their purchases coming from within Ontario.

While about 70 per cent of the menu is from scratch, when products are not made in-house it’s because they could be better made off-site, Zok said. For example, Western partners with local bakeries and businesses to buy from. “We are moving in the direction of making many more scratch items. It’s a little more economical this way and we can pass that saving on to the students,” she said.

On campus, seven out of nine residences have a dining hall with a market-style set-up and a more homestyle cooking environment. Outside of these locations, there are just under 20 retail outlets in other spots throughout campus.

While options seem to be abundant on university campuses, making sense of all these choices can be daunting.

Sandra Leduc, a registered dietician at Hotel Dieu Hospital in adult mental health, believes that students should be conscious of what their bodies need in terms of nutrition but shouldn’t get hung up on the numbers.

Leduc doesn’t suggest that students concern themselves too much with calorie counts and diets, saying that dieting can lead to eating disorder behaviours.

“If you do follow Canada’s Food Guide and more of the serving sizes and trying not to look at the calories, I think that would be more helpful because then you don’t have to worry about numbers,” she said. “[Listen] to your body’s cues and [try] to honour your hunger cues and satiety cues.”

“So [choose] what you would want to eat … [it’s] not just about getting your money’s worth.”

Leduc said that she uses Canada’s Food Guide to help build healthy balanced meals which includes at least three, if not all of the four, food groups: fruits and vegetables, grain products, milk and alternatives and meat or meat alternatives.

“If you do that, which is three meals, and then having at least one to three snacks in a day you would be getting the nutrition your body would require,” she said.

Even if you indulge in a meal that you don’t consider healthy, or you feel guilty about something you ate, that one meal doesn’t make or break a healthy eating pattern, she said.

“You can have the brownie as part of your dessert and make it a regular occurrence because that’s part of healthy eating,” she said. “A lot of people will find that with a dieting mentality, they’ll be deprived … you still need to implement these treat foods, in moderation, and have that healthy relationship with food.”

Students are encouraged not to go more than three or four hours in between meals to maintain the necessary blood sugar levels to keep up your energy, she added.

“Students in particular think ‘I can’t eat past a certain time, because I’ll gain weight’ and that’s a myth,” she said. “If you’re staying up until two in the morning studying, you need an extra snack … it will provide brain fuel at that point.”


September 14, 2013

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: 45 per cent of their fresh in-season produce coming from local farmers through the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative.

The Journal regrets the error.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.