The Future of Food Services At UNBC
By Tyson Kelsall, Culture Editor
In November, Over The Edge ran an article about the end of Eurest’s current food services contract and the ongoing negotiations for a new one. Since then, there has been a series of events, which has led to a letter of intent for the winning contract… Chartwells!
In terms of business ideology Chartwells is something of a sister-company to Eurest. The multinational food service provider, Compass Group, owns both. However, Aaron Leblanc, Director of Ancillary Services at UNBC, points out that Chartwells focuses more on educational institutions, including running food services at Simon Fraser University. In relation to new services, there will also be some opportunities for food education within the new plan. Additionally, Chartwells has promised $10,000 in annual scholarships to UNBC students. Leblanc hopes to concentrate on the distribution of these scholarship funds into student-generated ideas that are food focused. The contract was signed for five years, with an option for a five-year renewal if UNBC is content with the results.
The focus on local food innovation and education is important. As both LeBlanc and Cam Bell, the representative for student campus, pointed out. Defining exactly what “local” means to UNBC and the Prince George community can be difficult. LeBlanc says there is no concrete or popular definition of what “local” means, and that the capacity of agriculture in the northern region, is unfortunately too sparse at the moment to be relied upon. According to Cam Bell, “the local sourcing plan is still a little weak.” He stated that Chartwells was planning to work with the Canadian Food Inspection definition of local; anything that is within provincial boundaries, plus 50 kilometers, this definition leaves a lot of room to be desired. Bell also pointed out that there are holes in the process of getting local foods to campus. As Chartwells uses a centralized method of distribution for supplies, using local foods becomes problematic. The implication is that any local food grown in Prince George has to first be sent to a warehouse, then driven back to Prince George. The question then develops whether or not food that has travelled for 1,000 kilometers can still be considered local, and whether it is truly sustainable. However, Bell said that creative problem-solving around keeping food close to consumption has started to cultivate in southern Ontario, and thinks that UNBC can eventually be a part of this shift. Leblanc said that within the contract there is plenty of room for improvement as new solutions to sourcing local food arise.
Surrounding localization, there will be opportunities for local food education and connecting with local restaurants. Bell says that Chartwells has come up with some initiatives to promote local food knowledge, such as having a “Local Food of the Month,” which will celebrate and incorporate a food that grows in the Prince George region that month. There will also be a setup in the dining hall where chefs from the community can come up and cook their specialties and educate students on how to prepare healthy meals.
What is the dining hall? This is a new renovation coming to the University of Northern BC: a controversial one amongst students. What is now the cafeteria will be turned into an all-you-can-eat dining hall. There will be two ways to access the cafeteria. The first is a pay-per-entrance fee, one that LeBlanc is hoping to keep at a price point close to the average meal price at the cafeteria, which he identifies as $10-$11. This will also be open to the general public. The second, which is generating conversation around campus, is through a meal plan. The problem, according to some students, is that first year students living in residences will be forced into a mandatory meal plan. LeBlanc said that for returning students in residence the meal plan will become optional. This is causing a stir, as for first years, this will add an additional $2166 per semester to their fees, most of which will be going straight to Chartwells, a subsidiary of a large, multinational corporation. As an aside, options are being explored in regards to different types of meal plans for other students, such as a Monday-to-Friday plan that is a little less expensive.
Nicole Neufeld, Sales and Proposal Writer at UNBC, who has been put in charge of addressing questions or concerns, said that the amount of healthy foods in the dining hall will eliminate student anxieties or dilemmas about debating dollar for dollar what to eat, and the focus can be put onto eating healthily. The mandatory meal plan will give unlimited access to these students, meaning they can go to the cafeteria whenever they want and eat as much as they want. Another issue caused by this is that the seating in the cafeteria will be limited to people who have and can afford the meal plan. LeBlanc acknowledges the lack of good seating at UNBC, and hopes to work on improving that before next year, especially in the Canfor Winter Garden.
After the official contract is signed, UNBC will have to hold Chartwells accountable for the promises they make. As Bell notes, they arrived as politician-like businessmen and promised many things, so now it is in UNBC’s hands to make sure these things happen. UNBC is paying the costs of changing infrastructure, so that, as LeBlanc put it, “they are not in bed with the food service provider.” Since Chartwells is not paying for any of the new infrastructure, UNBC is not monetarily accountable to them in any way. LeBlanc also stressed that UNBC receives some of the commission from food sales, so it is not Chartwells receiving 100% of the funds when somebody pays to enter the dining hall. This also means that UNBC and Chartwells are taking more of a partnership approach, rather than adversarial one.
As Chartwells is a company with ties to UNBC’s previous food services provider, the staff will also be retained. Bell says this is good, because the current staff is already in tune with what the UNBC community wants.
Chartwells and UNBC will also be combining to provide some other new additions to the cafeteria. The first is titled “My Pantry.” My Pantry is a small area where there will be pre-cut foods and spices where students can go and cook their own meals within the dining hall. The selection of foods will be diverse, and LeBlanc said that this will eliminate any issues related to dietary restrictions. Bell agreed, pointing out that the contract indicated mandatory fees meant mandatory diversity of foods, so that everyone can eat. The next is an interactive feedback mechanism, where somebody can send a text message from their cellphone to the kitchen staff about their food. For example, a student could text, “the rice is way too salty!” and the staff could adjust the food accordingly. There will also be tablets available with easy access to nutritional facts.
The dynamics of the offerings made outside the dining hall will also change, although concrete decisions have not yet been made. Chartwells has offered UNBC to change the Tim Horton’s to a GoodEarth, a coffee chain that began in Calgary, but has expanded into over 35 locations around western Canada. A Subway will also be opening on campus. Each meal plan will come with some flex dollars that can be spent at any of these outlets, including the Northern Undergraduate Student Society’s owned Thirsty Moose pub.
In any case, there are some big changes coming to UNBC’s food services and layout. The most prevalent debates will undoubtedly arise around whether UNBC did enough to support local foods, protect student costs and/or connect with the Prince George community as a whole. Undoubtedly there is going to be some excitement surrounding the new developments, and the diversity of food options in the dining hall should satisfy more students than the current offerings provided by Eurest. As local agriculture and small scale farms grow, let’s hope UNBC holds Chartwells accountable to sourcing food from them. As Cam Bell said, “food is the new energy for Canada’s Green University, I hope that continues for the next few years.”
If you have any questions concerning the food service changes, please contact Nicole Neufeld at Nicole.Neufeld@unbc.ca.