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Food for Thought

We need affordable food options on campus

On February 1, students gathered at the University Centre to discuss the prevalence of food insecurity and the lack of affordable food options on campus. Attendees to the meeting, the second in a series, included representatives from SSMU, the Student Nutrition Accessibility Club (SNAC), Divest McGill, the Daily, and students interested in increasing food access at McGill. Representatives from Midnight Kitchen (MK) – a non-profit food collective that provides free lunches and catering services, hosts educational events, and operates a seasonal garden at McGill – had attended the previous food security meeting. The issue on the table is that campus food is largely inaccessible due to a lack of affordable food services and the corporatization of student cafeterias.

At the food insecurity meeting, students discussed what they call the “cafeteria crisis.” In 2000, McGill began centralizing food services, starting with appropriating the Redpath Cafeteria from SSMU and the Bronfman undergraduate cafeteria from the Management Undergraduate Society. The following year, cafeterias run by student associations – namely the Arts, Music, and Engineering undergraduate societies – were sold to the university. Since then, several other on-campus cafes managed by students have been closed. In 2007, for instance, the entirely student-run Architecture Café, located in the basement of the Macdonald-Harrington building and known to provide cheap lunches, lost financial oversight to McGill Food and Dining Services. Three years later, the McGill administration permanently closed the cafe. According to the Deputy Provost at the time, the cafe had to be closed because it was not turning a profit. This claim was disputed by the president of the Architecture Students’ Association and the EUS VP-Internal, who said the cafe was making a small profit. But profit was not the point of the cafe; providing good food at a cheap price was. The Provost had said, “The university cannot afford to subsidize anyone’s lunch.” Yet the university can afford to invest over $15 million in corporations implicated in the genocide of Uyghur people in China and over $60 million in the oil and gas industry, and it could afford to pay former president Suzanne Fortier a whopping baseline salary of $470,000. Too bad the McGill administration can’t find the funds in their $1.5 billion – $1,572,467,937.19, to be precise – endowment to ensure students on their campus are happy and healthy. 

In response to the closure of Arch Café, one student told the Daily, “We don’t wanna eat corporatized shitty-ass food.” This sentiment rings true today. However, there is limited support from the university for initiatives that provide accessible and sustainable alternatives to profit-driven food systems. MK provides free vegan lunches every other Thursday, but there are never enough meals to feed all who show up for them. In 2018, due to renovations to the SSMU building, MK was forced to scale back their operations from serving around 1,000 meals a week to 300. In a 2019 Daily article, a representative of MK wrote, “Around 12 p.m. a lineup of roughly 200 people would accrue in front of the serving tables, snaking out of the serving room, around the third floor hallway, and down the stairs. Tupperware in hand, students anticipated a delicious hot lunch.” Since their return in 2022, the organization has been forced to reduce capacity to just 50 meals every other week. Clearly, there is demand for free – or at least affordable – healthy meals on campus, and our university’s inattention to this demand is a sad reflection of its failure to care for the wellbeing of its students. 

Universities are much more than providers of education, as many students rely on these institutions for housing, employment, nutrition, and access to health care, among other things. It is necessary for food to be subsidized to some degree by the university to ensure wide-scale food access. This demand is not unique to McGill, and students across Canada have had to look beyond their administrations to tackle problems related to a lack of affordable food. The Guelph Student FoodBank provides students access to emergency food, anti-poverty resources, and referrals to other financial assistance groups. Meal Exchange at the University of Toronto has been conducting food security initiatives and research since 1993. Sprouts, a student-run organization at the University of British Columbia, works to make healthy, affordable, and sustainably-produced food accessible to students on their campus. Students at Concordia, meanwhile, have founded the Food Coalition, an organization made up of student-run food services committed to “being affordable always” and to critically approaching issues of food security and food sovereignty.

In a 2015 survey of over 1,300 McGill students, almost 80 per cent of respondents reported feeling that food options on campus are unaffordable. Given that rising dining hall prices and reduced operation of services such as MK has led to a decrease in access to affordable food services on campus, it is likely that this statistic remains unchanged. As students, food insecurity not only reduces academic performance but has severe negative effects on mental and physical health. On-campus food security is imperative to the well-being and success of students, and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. For students at Macdonald Campus, finding affordable food may also be a problem, especially considering the recent closure of the only grocery store in St-Anne-de-Bellevue. As the growing concern suggests, the university is failing to provide students with basic nutritional needs. 

If you are passionate about contributing to the cause of food accessibility, consider volunteering with Midnight Kitchen’s meal service or in their seasonal garden, which operates from May through October, when they begin looking for volunteers. Midnight Kitchen is currently accepting volunteers to join their Food Security Committee. People’s Potato at Concordia has compiled several lists for those looking for food assistance around Montreal, including a food resource sheet by neighbourhood. Every Friday at 12:30, The Yellow Door’s Rabbit Hole Café – by Prince-Arthur and Aylmer – serves a delicious, healthy, and affordable vegan lunch. If you can, donate to community pantries in Montreal to increase food access across the island, such as to the NDG Community Pantry, the Atwater Community Pantry, and the food bank and distribution program in Milton Parc