Features | History of a food fight

With students boycotting corporate campus cafeterias today and tomorrow, Shayla Cilliak and Maggie Schreiner reflect on the

Students are a vulnerable population. Strapped for time and hungry for fuel, we often end up dependent on campus food outlets for our three square meals – particularly during academic crunch times. Our campus food options should be healthy, tasty, inexpensive, ethical, and local whenever possible. A tall order, to be sure, but one student-run food outlets like Midnight Kitchen and Organic Campus have proven is possible.

Unfortunately, over the last several years, the McGill administration has persistently curtailed student-run food options on campus in favour of corporate outsourcing. In doing so, the University has failed in its responsibility to ensure that students have control over what we eat. We now have fewer choices – and lighter wallets – than ever before.

But the current model is not inevitable. It has been imposed on us, meaning that with enough effort, we can reverse it. Concerned students have organized a boycott of corporate- and McGill-operated cafeterias, taking place today and tomorrow. The Food Services Committee of the GrassRoots Association for Student Power and Midnight Kitchen will provide free, student-made meals outside corporate cafeterias on campus. Despite McGill’s best efforts, we do still have a choice: we can pay outlandish prices for low-quality Chartwells sandwiches, or we can have ourselves a food fight.

Coca-Cola controversy

Campus cafeterias across Canada are fairly homogenous, both in fare and ownership. Thirty years ago, dining services were often contracted to local providers whose menus reflected the seasonal availability of various ingredients. But the food service business has become increasingly competitive as companies pounce on the captive market of busy, overworked students.

The nineties in particular saw huge changes to campus food supply, through extensive consolidation, mergers, and aggressive bids for corporate exclusivity contracts with campus administrations. These days, food service provision in Canada is dominated by a handful of large companies: Aramark Corporation, Compass Group North America, and Sodexho, Inc., whose products and ingredients are supplied by an equally-small group of corporations. Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group, is the McGill administration’s favoured corporate food provider.

The current battle for control and diversity of food services at McGill began in 1999, when the University entered negotiations with Coca-Cola for an 11-year exclusive Cold Beverage Agreement (CBA). The deal would have given Coca-Cola the exclusive right to distribute beverages on campus, while McGill would get a substantial exclusivity fee and commissions on product sales.

Although the value of the agreement was officially secret, it was estimated to be worth over $1.5-million for the first year, with additional millions in the years to follow. Part of this money was to directly benefit students – for example, by financing renovations to the Shatner building – while the rest would be used to service the University’s deficit.

The potential agreement quickly became the source of considerable controversy. The confidential nature of the agreement meant that not only was the actual value of the deal hidden, but other clauses in the agreement also remained secret. The University of British Columbia’s experience gave cause for concern; its exclusivity contract with Coca-Cola included sales quotas, meaning the contract was automatically extended without compensation after beverage sales were lower than anticipated. Additionally, the University of Manitoba and York University experienced price hikes for Coca-Cola products after signing CBAs.

Although the financial incentives in the contract would have helped the University, the CBA did not address the root problem of chronic education underfunding, and was viewed by many as a “band-aid” solution. Finally, Coca-Cola’s history of human rights abuses pushed the issue to a SSMU referendum in April 2000. Fifty-four per cent of student voters rejected the Coca-Cola monopoly. This referendum result essentially killed the CBA, since at that time SSMU controlled about one-third of Coca-Cola sales on campus.

McGill moves in

Before the failure of the CBA, student societies like SSMU, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), and the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) operated most campus cafeterias and vending machines. Student societies had independence and control over food service provision, and were able to use profits from the cafeterias to fund their own initiatives.

But in the years following the CBA’s failure, the McGill administration brought most of the cafeterias and vending machines under the control of Ancillary Services. As many societies’ Memoranda of Agreement ­– the contracts outlining the relationship between McGill and the society – expired, the administration pressured or coerced the student associations to relinquish control of cafeterias and vending machines. Pressure tactics included withholding student fees from AUS and offering EUS $190,000 to give up its cafeteria.

Between 2000 and 2007, McGill took over cafeterias formerly operated by SSMU, AUS, EUS, the Science Undergraduate Society, the Management Undergraduate Society, the Economics Students’ Association, the Law Students’ Association, the McGill Psychology Students’ Association, and, most recently, the Architecture Students’ Association.

Throughout this time, the administration has openly stated its desire to consolidate campus food provision. Although the exclusivity deal with Coca-Cola was rejected by student referendum, in 2002 the University signed a non-exclusive contract with Coca-Cola concerning the provision of beverages on campus. That same year, SSMU accepted an exclusivity contract for the Shatner building with Pepsi, which expired last year and was not renewed.

Students get organized

With the contracts for 16 cafeterias on the downtown campus set to expire in 2004, McGill announced in 2003 that it was requesting proposals to contract all food services to a single provider. The administration felt that the most effective way to ensure high-quality food provision was the creation of a campus monopoly. But many students felt that the plan was an attack on food diversity on campus, and identified a number of key problems: price increases, fewer meal options, potential job losses for cafeteria workers, and food quality concerns.

Given that small businesses lack the resources to bid on such a large contract, it was considered likely that a huge food service company like Chartwells would win control of the cafeterias. Beginning operations at McGill in 2000, Chartwells has expanded aggressively into educational facilities throughout North America over the last decade. As a subsidiary of Compass Group, Chartwells is part of the largest food service business in the world, which employs around 400,000 people in 70 countries and had a net revenue of over $22-billion in 2006. In addition to universities, Compass Group also acts as a food service provider for hospitals, airports, and militaries.

In opposition to a potential cafeteria monopoly, students, faculty, and staff formed the Coalition for Action on Food Services (CAFS). Many were worried that an exclusivity contract would limit student groups’ ability to fundraise through bake and samosa sales, and that a monopoly would put student-run food services in danger.

CAFS initiated a broad campaign to draw attention to these issues, putting pressure on McGill to consult students in the decision-making process. The campaign included a panel on the future of food services at McGill, a petition, a three-day boycott of Chartwells cafeterias, and a referendum question. The mobilization was a huge success: 7,500 signatures were collected on the petition, 500 free lunches were served over three days, and in the referendum 82 per cent of voters opposed the monopolization of food services on campus.

Popular support for the CAFS campaign on campus forced the administration to backtrack. Contracts with food service providers were extended by a year to allow the university to consult with students, faculty and staff. Law student and Daily Publications Society Board of Directors member Max Reed, a former SSMU VP University Affairs and CAFS member, points out that CAFS was “a broad-based coalition that attracted the support of many, many groups on campus around a central goal.”

“This broad-based support made it very hard for the administration to ignore us. Thus, part of its legacy is that students continue to enjoy the unfettered right to sell food on campus to fundraise,” Reed says. “A secondary legacy is that the administration has slowed down its approach to the monopolization of food services by a single company.”

The administration also agreed to the formation of an advisory committee on food services. After some delay, the Dining at McGill Advisory Committee (DMAC) was formed in the Fall 2004 semester. The nine-member committee included students, faculty, and staff, but student representatives were hand-picked by the administration, not chosen by students as CAFS had recommended. Only one member of the committee had been involved with the mobilization the previous semester, and many feared that the committee members might not be aware of the full range of issues involved in granting food service contracts. The committee was also temporary, and had only an advisory role; it would be given no control over food provision decisions.

DMAC accepted submissions from the McGill community, including CAFS’s final recommendations on food services. The CAFS submission consisted of four proposals: the creation of a permanent food services committee, the protection of student fundraising activities like bake sales, permission for students and staff to choose their own food service providers for on-campus events, and a requirement that any food service provider must contribute to university projects.

DMAC submitted its report to Vice-Principal (Administration & Finance) Morty Yalovsky on January 31, 2005, reiterating most of CAFS’s principal demands. DMAC also recommended the creation of a permanent food services committee, and suggested that contracts be non-exclusive in order to protect student fundraising initiatives. The report also recommended the development of a multi-year plan for a periodic reconsideration of food services, and the creation of a review process for residence cafeterias.

In response to the DMAC report, McGill committed to using multiple food service providers, protecting student fundraising through food sales, and establishing a permanent food services committee.

Arch Café under attack

Although McGill has mostly adhered to its commitments, the years since the CAFS mobilization have witnessed the creeping corporatization of food services. The Bookstore Café, previously student-operated, was transferred to Chartwells only months after the conclusion of the CAFS campaign. McGill’s takeover of the Architecture Café last year is further evidence of the University’s opposition to student-run food services.

This time around, the issue of student autonomy has been a rallying point that appeals to many students, especially in the wake of the Architecture Café’s near-disappearance. Last summer, McGill unilaterally told the Architecture Students’ Association (ASA), which operates the Café, that it had two options: turn the Café into a lounge space – without food or beverage sales – or Food Services would take it over.

At the time, McGill administrators were frank about the reasoning behind incorporating the Architecture Café under Ancillary Services.

“The University wants to have a common strategy for food services,” Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson told The Daily in August. “Over the years there were a number of food service operations run by student groups and they have all been phased out, and that’s a strategic decision that the University has taken on this issue.”

After an outcry from students and McGill alumni, McGill and the ASA reached a compromise that saw the Café incorporated under Ancillary Services, with students mostly handling its day-to-day operations. But the agreement meant a loss of autonomy for one of the last large-scale student-run food operations on campus. It may be only a matter of time before McGill takes over the few student-operated food services that remain.

In it to win it

Something is clearly wrong with food services at McGill. But we still have a chance to change how this campus eats. The student-run food outlets that have managed to survive McGill’s slow takeovers need and deserve your support. And beyond scrambling to hold on to what’s left, students need to move forward with a different vision for campus food provision – one based on student autonomy, supporting local businesses, and accessibility. That’s what this boycott is all about.

In an interview with The Daily earlier this month, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said that there is “no evidence that student-run initiatives work better when it comes to food quality, variety, portion size and pricing.” Students know that she is wrong, and the evidence is all around us. But we need to prove it to the administration. Today and tomorrow, join in the action that will take place outside Chartwells cafeterias across campus. Come get a free meal, and send a message to McGill: the administration may have started the food fight, but students are sure as hell going to win it.

Shayla Cilliak and Maggie Schreiner are members of the Food Services Committee of the GrassRoots Association for Student Power and Midnight Kitchen, organizers of this week’s boycott.

Student-run food alternatives

Midnight Kitchen
every weekday at 12:30 p.m.

Shatner building
A pay-what-you-can, healthy, vegan meal.

Architecture Café
Macdonald-Harrington basement
Fair trade coffee, sandwiches, and treats. Not fully student-run, but better than the alternative.

AUS Snax
Leacock Building, first floor
Coffee, sandwiches, and snacks.

Rabbit Hole Café
3625 Aylmer, every Friday at 1:00 p.m.

A $1 vegetarian lunch

Thomson House
3650 McTavish
The PGSS-run restauraunt and pub.

MACES Café
3437 Peel
Delicious sandwiches.

EUS Frostbite and General Store
McConnell Engineering, first floor
Ice cream, coffee, and snacks.

Bake sales and samosa sales
Leacock, McConnell, Bronfman, etc., all the time!
Support good causes and student initiatives!


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