Dishing up a storm

Dishing up a storm McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 11, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 12
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Dishing up a storm

The delivery of McGill's food services is about to change, but not everybody likes what is on the menu.

A coalition of students, staff and professors has formed to lobby the university administration on the future of McGill's cafeterias, which the university is considering turning over to one or possibly more providers. Currently McGill's campus lunch counters are operated by a smorgasbord of residence food services, student groups and independent entrepreneurs. Three cafeterias are run by the contractor Chartwells.

The group — called Coalition for Action on Food Services (CAFS) — wants to ensure that students and staff have a greater say in the food choices offered on campus. They are concerned that a move to a single contractor will lead to a decrease in quality and choice.

CAFS and SSMU have been circulating petitions that have been signed by thousands of staff and students, an initiative that was started last fall by library staffer Elizabeth Martin. These will be presented to McGill administration on March 19. There will also be a boycott of the cafeterias operated by Chartwells on campus from March 16 to 18.

Vice-principal (finance and administration) Morty Yalovsky said that the university's goal is to improve overall service, quality and choice.

"The real reason for doing this is to increase the quality of the food, to increase the service, and to increase the choices so that not every cafeteria is offering the same food," said Yalovsky. In the past, contractors had been known to conduct renovations that damaged heritage properties, or did not respect building electrical and plumbing codes.

He explained that the university has not yet opened the contract for tender, as the standards for the cafeterias — on everything from hours of operation to whether to use recyclable drinking cups — have not been completed.

CAFS has a number of concerns about who the eventual service provider will be, and how they are chosen.

"We would like strong community input in the cafeterias in our buildings," said Daniel Friedlaender of the Arts Undergraduate Society.

"We know our needs and we want input."

Yalovsky said that student input is already regularly solicited on the operation of cafeterias and meetings are held with each student association on this issue every semester.

"If you have a cafeteria that is managed by the university, we have meetings every semester with the various student groups," he said.

"There is opportunity for student input as relates to their specific location. Also you may notice in many locations there are suggestion boxes, and in the new residence hall you have a board that posts not only complaints, but responses to complaints."

These suggestions are acted upon when possible — a free-to-use microwave was installed in the Redpath Library cafeteria as a direct result of student comments.

When responsibility for the cafeteria in the MacConnell building was taken from the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) and given to Chartwells, there were immediate negative effects, according to EUS president Michal Wozny. Prices went up, and he said service has gone down. Under the previous contractor, the EUS was able to have a say in food prices and deal with complaints.

"Whenever they did something, it was always through us. When they wanted to change the menu or change the prices, it was always approved by us. And if there were any complaints — which were few and far between — we were always able to address them very quickly."

Law professor Steven Scott said that the responsiveness of the cafeteria operators to the needs of his faculty are what brought him on board.

"I want to make it clear that I'm respectful of the administration, but I believe they are making a mistake," he said. He pointed out that Pino Abbruzzo, a partner of the three Pino and Matteo cafeterias in Law, Biology and Athletics, is willing to make all kinds of special services available: late breakfasts, fresh made muffins, deliveries to classes.

"The question boils down to quality of life," said Scott.

Abbruzzo said that his contract will expire on May 31. He does not expect to have it renewed. His business employs several members of his family and many students.

He prides himself on the relationship he's built with his clientele, and the quality food that he provides.

"If you come into my place you know the soup is fresh — you can see my mother chopping the celery right in front of you," he said. "If you say you don't have the money to pay me today, can I pay you tomorrow, that's okay."

Reverend Gwenda Wells, director of McGill Chaplaincy is lending her support to CAFS. She said removing cafeterias from the control of student groups takes away from their university experience.

"It removes the right of students to be entrepreneurs, and an educational opportunity. This would seem to be axiomatic for a university," said Wells.

Student groups that derived part of their budget from cafeteria revenues have received grants from the university — Wozny said the EUS received roughly $189,000, and Yalovsky said nearly $500,000 has been disbursed in total. He also said that any new contractor would continue to hire students. Those cafeteria staff employed directly by McGill would be protected. The new contract will not be an exclusivity agreement, which means that outside caterers and student bake sales will still be allowed.

In addition to the funds for student groups, Yalovsky said that he estimates that anywhere from $6- to $8-million will have been spent on cafeteria renovations and upgrades around campus, including a planned sidewalk bistro for the management building.

These investments are not being made on the expectation of reaping a financial windfall.

"We see it as an overall package where students come here to be educated, we do our best to make sure there are new residences for them and that the quality of food meets a certain standard," he said.

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