The McGill Food Coalition Kick-Off Event – Community and Food Go Hand-in-Hand

By Enkhuun Byambadorj

Food and community were the dominant themes at the McGill Food Coalition’s (MFC) kick-off event on November 15th. Attendees were welcomed with warm coffee, MFC pins, and an honest discussion about the state of McGill University’s food system. 

The main event of the kick-off was a panel discussion, featuring four prominent members of McGill’s and Montreal’s food communities: Graham Calder – founder of P3 Permaculture, a social enterprise that seeks to make permaculture more accessible; Erik Chevrier – a part-time Concordia professor and researcher with extensive experience in reforming Concordia’s food system; Nat Alexander – a project manager at Midnight Kitchen, a non-profit at McGill with a mission to increase the accessibility of food on campus through meal pick-ups and a gardening program; and Karine Houde – representative at Santropol Roulant, a collective dedicated to maintaining the communal nature of food. 

The MFC was started by three McGill undergraduate students – Camille Bui, Khadi Sarr, and Rachel Schleifer – with support from CHNGR MTL, a social innovation fellowship for students. The MFC founders saw the food service system at McGill become more profit-driven throughout their university careers, and decided that the “social and environmental dimensions” of food needed to be re-established. 

The MFC founders saw the food service system on McGill’s campus become more and more profit-driven throughout their university experiences, and decided that “social and environmental dimensions” of food needed to be re-established. 

All of the panelists, especially Nat Alexander and Karine Houde, highlighted the inherently collective dimension of food as an integral part of our identities, communities, and cultures. The panelists, implicitly, and the organizers, explicitly, emphasized that food is more than a transaction. However, the corporate system gradually dominating our food services has made food nothing but one on university campuses, hospitals, and even in prison. 

As international development students, we often discuss barriers to development on a global or national scale. We evaluate the nuances in historical context and the divisive discourse of development as a modern and culturally imperialistic institution imposing Western values on the so-called developing world. However, we must also recognize the development issues much closer to us – the ones in our own university. Food security and the history of corporatization of food systems at McGill and across North American universities are inextricably linked with poverty, race, capitalism, and the rise of conglomerates. 

… we must also recognize the development issues much closer to us – the ones in our own university. Food security and the history of corporatization of food systems at McGill and across North American universities are inextricably linked with poverty, race, capitalism, and the rise of conglomerates. 

In the context of McGill’s food service system, this means increased centralization of food providers over the past 20 years, beginning with the university’s 11-year contract with Coca-Cola in 1999 that made the company the sole distributor of beverages on campus. The number of student-run food businesses has been steadily declining since. Two prominent examples are the permanent closure of the Architecture Café in 2010 and replacement of Tim Hortons with Première Moisson at the Redpath Library basement in 2014. Both decisions were implemented despite great resistance from the student body. 

For Erik Chevrier, this ability to resist and mobilize, coupled with the availability of research funding, resources, and agricultural centers, makes universities the ideal places for reforming our food systems away from profit-driven corporations. He called out the contracts made between universities and companies across North America giving a single food provider the exclusive mandate to offer food services on campus. In McGill’s case, that single provider is Dana Hospitality – a food service franchise. Most students living in residences are signed into a mandatory meal plan provided by Dana Hospitality. Students today pay $5,975 a year for a limited number of meals. Earlier this year, Dana Hospitality furthered its monopoly over food on campus by taking over 11 more cafes

While decisions to centralize the food system were made in the name of improving the quality of ingredients and despite the many awards and achievements for sustainability the McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS) has won, affordability and accessibility have been sacrificed in the process. According to Graham Calder, this is one of the many reasons that we are living in a food desert, despite what McGill may view as a place of food security. 

For the MFC founders, it is vital that the memory of student-run initiatives shut down by the university is preserved. The turnover rate of students is fast compared to the glacial speed of institutional and structural change, and students need to know that the current system is not the norm. At Concordia, for instance, Erik Chevrier pointed out that it took 10 years for the university to listen to students’ complaints about the university’s profit-driven food service system. New students coming into McGill will have no way of knowing that there used to be an alternative to mandatory meal plans prior to 2009, or that student-run dining options like SNAX used to be much more prevalent. 

The turnover rate of students is fast compared to the glacial speed of institutional and structural change, and students need to know that the current system is not the norm.

While there are students who can afford meal plans and dining options on campus, there are many who cannot. Students from low-income backgrounds or international students facing harsh exchange rates may be most vulnerable to food insecurity. A survey conducted by the SSMU in 2015 revealed that almost 80% of 1300 surveyed students felt that food on campus was unaffordable. Not much has changed since. 

On a more positive note, a CHNGR representative pointed out that McGill is not starting out from scratch, referring to McGill’s farm on the Macdonald campus, and now the MFC, dedicated to connecting different food groups on campus, supporting new ones, conducting research, and starting a dialogue to let students take back control over our food. 

Following the panel discussion, the audience, panelists, and various food groups on the McGill campus were invited to attend a socializing event at ECOLE. Surrounded by good food, fruitful discussions, laughter, and plenty of conversation, the MFC had succeeded in bringing community back to McGill’s food system for the evening.

Edited by Shannon Benson

Photo credits:Food basket” by Liz West. Published 19th of March, 2012. This work was sourced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. No changes were made.

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