By Laura Fraser
Imagine a place on campus where students could enjoy fresh, vegetarian, and possibly free, meals. Thanks to a new group at Ryerson, this could be a reality.
After attending a conference held by the Sierra Youth Coalition – an educational group dedicated to improving the environment – last October, Jedidiah Gordon-Moran, a third-year film student, decided to implement what he’d learned. He looked into the SYC’s sustainable campuses project and decided to form the RyeSAC Initiative for Sustainability and the Environment, a group that would address social, economic and ecological issues at Ryerson.
As Gordon-Moran puts it, “sustainability isn’t solely about improving the environment, although the overriding focus of RISE is to lessen the impact of our campus [on the environment] It’s about creating a relationship between economics, social responsibility and the environment.”
RISE is divided into three committees, each dedicated to tackling a specific issue. The first two groups are focused on improving recycling, and trying to introduce the option of fair trade coffee on campus. The third committee is planning to start a food collective: A non-profit organization that would offer students affordable – and sometimes free – alternative meals.
A food collective would benefit not only the students but also the local community, says Gordon-Moran.
“It’s about taking control over the food that we consume, over the healthiness of the food, and knowing where the food comes from. It’s about supporting local produce and local farmers,” he says.
RISE is hoping to find several sponsors, particularly from independent organic grocery stores or local farmers’ markets. IT is also looking into a partnership with Alternative Grounds, part of Co-operative Coffees Inc, in an effort to supply students with the option of purchasing fair trade coffee. Coffee farmers working for some larger corporate coffee companies can earn less than a dollar a day for their labour. Alternative Grounds partners with smaller farmers and pays fair price for their product.
In the two meetings the fledgling group has held so far, members have brainstormed through several problems they’ve encountered. A major issue for the group is finding a space on campus that can accommodate its operation.
It was originally hoping for a location in the new student centre but Carlos Flores, RyeSAC’s vice-president education and a member of RISE, found that was not an option.
RISE member Tanya Kowalenko is looking to other campus food collectives for inspiration.
“Kitchens, like The People’s Potato at Concordia, started out by making food at a church and then carrying it over to the university to serve it,” she says.
However, Kowalenko, a second-year food and nutrition student, says that may not be possible due to food and temperature regulations.
Despite its humble beginning, The People’s Potato, a student-run food collective at Concordia University in Montreal, now serves healthy, vegan meals to more than 400 students each day. It has partnerships with local merchants, its own dining space, and has recently produced a cookbook.
Gordon-Moran says another benefit of having a community kitchen on campus would be that RISE would have control over the waste produced. This would allow it to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way, unlike the current cafeterias.
Cynthia Shih, a student representative on the residence food council, explained that the Pitman Hall cafeteria gives more than 200 Styrofoam containers each day.
“Honestly, if people would just ask for a plate, the garbage containers wouldn’t be overflowing with Styrofoam.”
First-year fashion student Lindsey Davey says a food collective would fill an important niche at Ryerson. As a vegetarian, Davey says she finds the current vegetarian fare offered by Aramark, Ryerson’s food supplier, is of poor quality.
“It’s never really a complete meal. There’s almost no protein in anything, and as a vegetarian that’s the main thing that you’re lacking.”
Davey lives in Pitman Hall, and like all students in residence, she is required to purchase a meal plan. Despite owning a meal card, she thinks vegetarians, including those who live in residence, would take advantage of the healthier options a food collective would offer.
As for potential menu items, Davey thinks that protein-rich foods are of high-importance.
“I’d like to see things like vegetarian chili, a good veggie burger; some foods that are high in protein. I’ve realized recently why I’m tired all the time; because the protein is really low in the cafeteria food that I’ve been eating.”
But what is likely to attract most students is the price. RISE’s food collective would aim to supply students with much cheaper – maybe even free – meals.
As student debt in Canada grows – last year the average student debt load for graduating students was $25,000 – campuses across the country are responding to the need for a source of inexpensive and nutritious food. There are currently more than 50 food banks or food collectives at Canadian universities and colleges. Thanks to groups like RISE, this number will likely increase.
The Vegetarian Café, a food collective at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus began serving students in 1999. They started out with only a handful of customers and now serve between 80 and 100 students daily. Their menu is almost completely vegan and organic, and also aims to accommodate students with specific dietary needs.
Agata Durkalec, a peace and conflict student at U of T, is also one of the financial co-ordinators for the Vegetarium Café. The mission of the café is to provide an affordable, socially conscious, environmentally friendly food option on campus, while operating in an inclusive and progressive workspace.
Durkalec takes a sip of steaming fair trade coffee and grins. “It’s pretty idealistic. You can imagine how hard it is to keep it affordable while doing all those other things.”
Yet, the Vegetarium Café has a well-established clientele of students, some of whom, according to Durkalec, eat there every day. The small dining area has only six tables, but they are all filled with students enjoying the day’s menu.
Today’s broccoli bulgur sesame salad is served in ceramic bowls – the Vegetarium Café doesn’t offer takeout in an effort to minimize waste. Customers wanting to bring their meal elsewhere are encouraged to bring their own container, or they can purchase a reusable one along with their meal. There are no garbage cans in the café, only a series of recycling boxes and a compost container.
The Vegetarium also focuses on sustainability, outreach and education programs. It offers vegetarian cooking classes and conducts various workshops. It is a non-profit, and completely student-run organization and Durkalec says it is hoping to connect with other universities running similar projects. Perhaps in the fall, if things go according to plan, RISE’s food collective will be one of those partners.