Food for Thought
Gone are the days when campus food resembled mushy gruel or deep-fried . . . well, everything
by Deb Cummings
In a world where fast, fresh food (that’s multicoloured, textured and, dare we say, spicy?) is the new norm, universities across the continent have upped their menus to feed growing minds and appetites.
What was once called UCalgary’s Dining Centre — now referred to as The Landing — is no exception to this culinary trend. Still housed in the Dining Centre building, last summer’s $3.3-million facelift now boasts 12 food stations, no packaged takeaways and double the seats, from 285 to 425.
In 2014, when Aramark was awarded the UCalgary contract as its food service partner, it was deemed a healthy dose of market research was in order. A small team of students and staff set off for eastern campuses to test out the fare at recommended food-forward universities such as Carleton and Wilfred Laurier.
“We wanted students to drive this initiative,” explains Jill Blackie, associate director of food and conference services at UCalgary. “Our survey results were telling us that students weren’t (a) happy with the quality of food, (b) the variety of the offerings and (c) the price.”
If the proof lies in the pudding, the expansion (a wall was knocked out where the old Blue Room was to make space for a more market-style setting) has been a resounding success. Yes, the price of the top (unlimited) meal plan increased from about $4,600 to $4,999 a year, but the number of students on meal plans has shot up from 850 (2017) to 1,350 (2018).
With four plans to choose from, the top two provide unlimited options that apply to either five or seven days a week — in other words, you can come and go however often you’d like. The next is a five-day plan and the other is your choice of a “swipe” plan (with options to purchase a 250- or a 120-meal pass). The most popular, says Blackie, is the seven-day plan that includes a flexi-fund for any on-campus dining that accepts the Unicard. “If you look at the value of each meal over the course of a week, it works out to be about $20 a day,” says Blackie, “and that includes unlimited food.”
Surely, so many irresistible options on an all-you-can-eat meal plan translates into the dreaded Frosh 15 weight gain?
“I don’t think so,” says Blackie. “Look at what’s on students’ trays and you’ll see healthier options, with far more fruits and veggies than before.”
With a choice of black bean quesadillas, vegetable curry wraps, a massive salad bar, rosemary roasted turkey and dozens of other choices, it’s no wonder some 150 staff and faculty are now choosing to nosh alongside students. Besides operating on a four-week rotational schedule, numerous themes — from following the life cycle of a salmon and special holiday buffets to cooking battles and open mic nights — are constantly being designed.
As are its new sustainability programs. No longer will you find packaged goods, bottled beverages, takeaway meals and disposable cutlery at The Landing. What you will find are more students hanging around meal time for longer, and in groups, instead of grabbing some fast food and taking it to their rooms.
“Food is so important,” says Blackie. “Meal times are about sharing and community. They are about downtime, mental nourishment and expanding one’s palate. I am thrilled when I hear someone say, ‘That looks weird, but I love it.’”
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