Food for Thought is a new column investigating food services at McGill and documenting the conversations happening on campus around food affordability and accessibility.
Macdonald campus, home to McGill’s Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Food Science, and Nutritional Sciences programs, lacks adequate food access. Marché Richelieu in Sainte-Anne-De-Bellevue closed its doors in early January, leaving students and residents without access to a grocery store within walking distance. Café Twigs, one of the two eateries on campus, shut down on February 1 due to asbestos cleaning in the Raymond, Macdonald-Stewart and Barton buildings. Nearby Provigo in Baie D’Urfé, which previously provided a weekly shuttle for students, announced that they would close for 3 months at the end of March to convert into a Maxi.
Students living on-campus without a car must choose between ordering groceries online, taking transit to a grocery store further away, or using McGill’s grocery bus service. McGill currently runs two shuttles that leave from the Laird Hall residence at 6:45 p.m. to the Walmart in Vaudreuil and depart the store at 8:30 p.m. These departure times may interfere with students’ other commitments. In an interview with the Daily, Zell Song, Vice-President External of Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS), reported that they conducted a survey of grocery needs among the student population to see which times might work better.
“We didn’t get a lot of responses, but from those that we have, [we found that] most people are concerned about food access,” she described. “We suggest[ed] Monday 6-8 p.m. and also Thursday 6-8 p.m. [to the housing office] so it’s spread out over the week, but that’s something the school needs to negotiate with the bus company to see if it’s possible.”
These problems are not new for the Macdonald campus. Maya Côté, who studies at Macdonald campus, informed the Daily that Marché Richelieu “didn’t have as many items as you could find in big Maxi or IGA stores, and [she] also felt like it was more expensive as well, so on a student budget, it’s really not convenient.” She noted that the Provigo is also in the higher price range and that the weekly shuttle could be stressful. “I kind of like to take my time, look at the items, compare the value, the nutritional value, stuff like that. I felt like you couldn’t really do that,” Côté pointed out.
There are two eateries on campus, Café Twigs and the Ceilidh restaurant. Café Twigs is the second location of a locally-owned small business in Sainte-Anne and sources ingredients from the Macdonald Farm. While it has been closed due to asbestos cleaning in the Barton and Macdonald-Stewart Buildings, the buildings are currently set to open Tuesday, March 14. The Ceilidh restaurant is still operating and is fully run by the MCSS. According to a statement from McGill, the John Abbott College cafeteria next door is also accessible to McGill students and faculty.
Sam Liptay, another student at Macdonald campus, told the Daily that Café Twigs and the Ceilidh are relatively affordable and healthy compared to the downtown cafeterias. “When I’m on campus here, I certainly don’t skip meals necessarily as much as I would downtown,” he said. Côté agreed, adding, “I really enjoy Twigs and the Ceilidh. But then again, they close at like, [3:00] p.m […] let’s say you have a class that finishes at 5:30. If you want to grab something to eat, everything’s closed.”
Students on campus are working to fill the gap left by the administration, but face a lack of institutional support. Côté is the co-president of Happy Belly, a volunteer-run organization that provides free vegan meals on Thursday mornings and gives out leftover perishables on-campus. “We can’t address the whole food desert problem because I feel like we’re just kind of a bandaid on a womb,” she expressed. “We only cook one evening a week […] we can’t serve everybody on campus.” They cannot provide more meals because they rely on volunteers.
Liptay is a member of the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens (MSEG), a fully student-run vegetable farm that sells to hundreds of members of the McGill, Montreal, and Sainte-Anne communities, and experiences similar challenges. “It’s really hard, this choice between […] not pay[ing] anybody enough money at the farm and also feel[ing] like we’re selling our vegetables for too much money,” he described. MSEG has always provided a student discount and is offering five half-priced Community Supported Agriculture baskets this summer and fall in order to improve accessibility.
Finding a balance between eating sustainably and affordably is a common struggle at Macdonald campus. Marché Sainte-Anne is a year-round farmers’ market that students and residents can access, but maintains a higher price point. The Mac Market also sells produce from the Macdonald Horticultural Center from July to November.
Macdonald campus offers numerous classes on food topics. “A lot of people get more involved in food systems and realize how much work goes into making a good food system and paying more money for good food,” Liptay noted. “But there’s also this problem of food insecurity and people not being able to afford food and skipping meals.”
The academic focus on food security leads to many student-led initiatives, such as the Ceilidh, Happy Belly, MSEG, and Buy Your Own Bulk, which provides zero-waste dry food at an affordable price. However, much of this programming is unable to expand due to inadequate administrative support. Song explained that Ceilidh would likely be unable to increase its hours while covering costs and accommodating the student-workers’ schedules. Côté mentioned that she could not implement a composting project she was working on, expressing that “it’s always a lack of funding that kind of comes into play.”
“We don’t get any money from the university apart from the land [… ] So it doesn’t really feel like I’m running a lovely educational experience for students, which is kind of what you’d hope at a university,” Liptay added. “It feels like I’m running a business that also has to deal with [bureaucratic processes] from the university.”
Working to solve food access can be daunting for students both downtown and at Macdonald campus. “Students are organizing against the food desert situation in general, but then it’s really hard because it also involves the cities and municipalities and bigger scale governance,” Côté said. “Student groups and student organization can go a really long way in creating change, but I also know with the high turnover that there is in any university, it’s hard to maintain organization,” Liptay described.
Students in MSEG spend their first growing season as apprentices learning from the managers, then become managers their second growing season. This cyclical management system has allowed MSEG to continue running for more than 10 years. Liptay called for similar “institutional avenues of student participation in decision making and governance” at McGill.
He added, “The most important part for me is for McGill to allow space for students to be more directly involved in their food system and have the opportunity and be encouraged to operate student-run cafes, food spaces, and food systems.”