McGill food services see positive change

Event highlights student collaboration and change

Last Monday evening, McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS), the student-run McGill Food Systems Project (MFSP), and the Office of Sustainability hosted “Deconstructing Dinner”, an event aimed at increasing awareness of positive developments in student food services on campus.

The event also celebrated important projects between students and MFDS. Student initiatives such as McGill Feeding McGill have been critical primary steps toward increasing sustainability on campus. McGill Feeding McGill is an initiative that will make the farms on Macdonald Campus McGill’s main fruit and vegetable supplier beginning next fall. MFDS is also working on plans to serve more sustainable seafood, pork, and chicken.

The recent appointment of Laura Rhodes as food systems administrator, who spoke at the event, was another major step towards sustainability.

The position of Food Systems Administrator was created to encourage food sustainability on campus, initiate a Strategic Action Plan for MFDS, help organize applied student research, and facilitate collaboration between administration and students on such issues.

The Strategic Action Plan, drafted in the fall of 2010 outlines the short-and long-term changes MFDS will undergo with regards to food sustainability, transparency, teamwork, trust, and a more sustainable business model.

Recently, MFDS has come under a lot of criticism from student media, in particular from The Daily.

According to Oliver de Volpi, executive chef of MFDS, who also spoke at the event, these criticisms are often one-sided and miss signs of progress.

“We’ve screwed up a bunch of times, but for everything that gets screwed up that gets printed, there’s three or four actions that are good, and sometimes the screw-ups aren’t as they’re put out to be… There are two sides to these things and we’re hearing one side only,” he said.

De Volpi referred to Monday’s Daily article, which criticized MFDS’s recent price hikes. “The balance has to be made: what we can do for sustainable initiatives and what the students are willing to accept paying for. That’s what we’re trying to do, figure how much they want, at what time frame they want it, and what they want first. We consult with students all the time on these things.”

Sarah Archibald, a student co-coordinator of the MFSP who has been working closely with de Volpi and the MFDS, has had a very positive experience so far. “For me, it’s the first time I’ve worked with ‘the man’ and it’s been incredibly empowering to see this change.”

“When you are working on a scale to feed 30,000 people it’s pretty easy to be critiqued, I’d say,” said Archibald, “but they’re always open to consultation, criticism, and questions.”

Dana Lahey, another student involved with MFSP, said that one of the reasons for the success of recent projects was the collaboration between students and staff.

“To me that’s what’s made this whole process work,” said Lahey. The changes were made possible when they approached the administration with a positive attitude: “We wanted to work with them, and we wanted to understand their perspective.”

Much of the discussion at “Deconstructing Dinner” revolved around applied student research. Many changes have been initiated by students. For example, a GEOG 302 Management Proposal created in 2009 suggested that MFDS hire a food sustainability coordinator, independent research projects on chicken purchasing options, and the possibility of offering more vegetarian meals.

“I think [applied student research] is the best thing that we have to offer as a university,” said de Volpi. “It makes us look so good, it gives students the opportunity to do research that they wouldn’t be able to, it gives the farm the opportunity to do more work. All around, everybody wins. We’re doing 95 per cent of the recommendations already.”

“We really want to include applied student research and collaboration throughout the entire cycle,” said Archibald, “Everything from food scraps to the planting at Mac campus, where the Plant Science students will be involved – it’s all a cycle.”

After the speeches Lahey spoke of the importance and of the event.

“I’m hoping that events like this will keep on making those personal connections, and that more and more people on campus start talking together and working together,” she said.

“It’s really exciting to think of where this could go and the idea that this University could actually be a model for the world,” added Archibald.

De Volpi was equally positive: “We’re going to be something that I hope other universities are going to look at as a model,” he said. “I hope people are going to look at us and say, that’s something to be proud of.’”

“Trying to cultivate systems outside of the industrial food system box really works when we become part of the food system instead of a recipient. We really have to push ourselves out of the box,” said activist Jon Steinman during his talk at the event.

According to Steinman, this involves students working with administration instead of against. For Rhodes and student speakers, the progress made so far is proof of this.