If King’s is your home away from home, you eat there every day. Even if you’re a day student, you’ve probably eaten there with your friends or tutorial. But in the last few years students have been expressing concerns with what they’re eating and where it comes from.
Tamar Wolofsky, a third-year student, used to participate with the now-dissolved King’s Alternative Food Cooperative Association (KAFCA), a society that cooked and served local, healthy meal on a weekly basis.
“I got involved because I saw a need for something,” said Wolofsky. “Sodexo wasn’t healthy or vegan enough. People wanted local, healthy, non-corporate food choices.”
Celine Beland, manager of Sodexo staff, is responsible for keeping students happy and producing of hundreds of meals a day. She says the job can be a balancing act.
“This year all the nutrition information is there, we always have a vegetarian option, a gluten-free item. We revised based on feedback from students,” said Beland.
Some requests come with a high cost. “Every year I hear new needs,” she said. “The most common one this year is gluten-free… some people are gluten-free by choice, others by necessity, but gluten-free is very expensive.”
For example, she says a loaf of bread usually costs $2.50, but a gluten-free loaf comes in at $7.50.
“If everyone wanted gluten-free, it just wouldn’t be feasible.”
Beland says she can’t afford to give every diner local, organic and gluten-free food, but says working with a large company such as Sodexo has benefits.
“We buy only from approved vendors. This means they have insurance liabilities. They are inspected,” said Beland.
“The reason we can’t buy stuff from the farm at the end of the street is because what if they sell you something with e coli? You have clients’ lives in your hands.”
“You can’t just buy potatoes from the side of the road and then feed them to hundreds of people,” she said. Though it’s what she would do, Wolofsky says it’s not a risk everyone would want to take.
Still, Beland’s main objective is to keep students satisfied. “It’s my goal to figure out what they want to eat,” she said. “If you are here seven days a week, you can get bored.”
Students are doing that, says Beland, by writing comments in her suggestion box, which she says she checks every morning at 6 a.m.
“Students are smart enough to understand we can’t give them steak and seafood every day,” she said, “but they also understand that we try to treat them when we can.”
Sodexo management has tried other ways to engage students, such as a company survey that has since been cancelled, special meals with student representatives from each residence to hear feedback, and a “Recipes from Home” program last year. This year the dean of residence, Nick Hatt, is spearheading a food committee with Sodexo staff, students and faculty members.
Not everyone thinks Sodexo facilitates student involvement well enough, including Omri Haiven, a fourth year student and the King’s Students’ Union external vice-president. He has been involved with food politics since his first year, when he founded KAFCA, and now belongs to the Dalhousie University food group, the Loaded Ladle.
“Despite being excellent people,” said Haiven, “they (Sodexo) don’t have the right structure to do what students want.”
Haiven says, despite the efforts from Beland and other staff, the food is still provided by a corporation. . “There is a need for food sovereignty,” he said, “people who provide the food and eat it need to be democratically involved.”
Wolofsky is more conflicted.
“That’s the way I want things to go, but on the other hand, you can’t go into Wendy’s and for $1.50 get a burger made from local organic beef.”
She says residence students only have Prince Hall for food and so must make their expectations clear.
“In the absence of choice we have to demand to be provided with things we would choose for ourselves.”
Beland is of the same mind.
“Sodexo does not decide what we serve here. We go on the daily feedback from our client,” she said. “We are following the rules of Sodexo Canada, but we are following the expectations of our client: students.”