I’ve always had a hard time duplicating some of the complaints about food on campus. Admittedly, I don’t know a whole lot about what food is like at other universities. I have spent a good deal of time at St. George, and I recognize that their selection is much wider. But my reaction to what we do serve here almost never consists of the upchucking depicted on the posters for UTMSU’s Facebook event “#WTFUTMFOOD”.
That said, if someone can do a better job, I wholeheartedly invite them to. I’m glad there’s Indian food on campus, as a general fan of the cuisine, but realistically, Tandoori is the fast food version of Indian food even though it prices itself in the range of some of the restaurants I’ve been to. Similarly, the International Kitchen, which serves a different dish every day and rotates something like every month, sometimes has dishes among my favourite at UTM, but sometimes it’s mac and cheese. At such times, I resort to Timmies, Subway, or pizza, all of which quickly get monotonous. And why do we have one Starbucks on campus but two Second Cups? Is there ever a lineup for the one in the Meeting Place? Worst of all, when we Medium folks are here publishing on Sunday, the only place still open at suppertime is OPH, where you can miraculously pay upwards of $14 for a dish, a drink, and a chocolate bar. Yeah, things could be better.
The question is, who is this superhero who should come in and fix it?
For a long time, the flak has been directed at Chartwells, the food provider whose contract with the university names it as the sole provider of all food on campus, except for the Blind Duck, vending machines, and food you bring from home. The various restaurants have been routed through Chartwells since 2004.
That said, Chartwells’ winning the contract over the departing provider, Aramark—the same one that was in the news for having been given millions in subsidy while providing food services at Ryerson—was heralded as a major improvement. Chartwells had purportedly friendlier staff, they cared about the environment, and they had plans for the future. The president of the student union at the time said Chartwells was “an excellent choice for the campus […] They have proven themselves in other schools and seem to be ahead of the game already.” (This was between remarks disparaging Aramark. He also said the student union was “one of the leading forces on campus in opposition to Aramark”—but then, they’re in opposition to most of what the administration does. Just last week a UTMSU exec described the administration to me as “the enemy” before regretting the word choice. No wonder Chartwells, now established at UTM, has come under fire.)
Anyway, my point is that replacing Chartwells with a different provider won’t change much. In fact, in 2000, the Medium printed a rather prophetic quote by a student who predicted that if we ever got rid of Aramark, some other monopoly would come along to make us miserable.
But one thing did actually change substantially between Aramark and Chartwells. In the latter contract, the Blind Duck is placed in the hands of students. The idea was that the profits from the pub could be forwarded to student service improvements.
It was a good idea, but something went wrong in the implementation. For years the Blind Duck has been so unprofitable that it requires a student levy of tens of thousands of dollars to break even. On top of that, it requires an advance from UTMSU of tens of thousands more that, until last year, has regularly been written off. The advance was recovered in 2012, but the pub is far from profitable.
But that doesn’t mean we should lose faith. The model is the right one. Right now, Chartwells’ contract is up for expiry in April, as you can read more about in this week’s cover story. And a lot of fuss is being made about whether it will be renewed or opened up to other bidders. But it doesn’t really matter either way. Whoever gets it will take advantage of the fact that our only other choices are to bus to Square One or (heaven help us) pack sandwiches in Tupperware, and will expect us to be grateful for a third, a fourth, even a fifth station selling the exact same soups and sandwiches, not to mention those adorable plastic cups filled with 10¢ worth of red jujubes being sold for $1.99.
No, what we need is a better infrastructure to gradually erode the need for outside providers. And that’s the tricky part. We need to know more about our situation and how to do better. Why is the pub unprofitable? How can we make it profitable? What do we want to see more of and can we offer it? Are the pub’s prices really any better than elsewhere on campus for the same item? We should be investigating questions like these.
It’s easy to take shots at Chartwells. It’s harder to work out a real solution. But that’s what needs to happen.