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Cafeteria Commentary

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Historically, food has helped link humans together. It is more than just a substance consumed for health benefits — it’s a way of bringing people together in celebration, in mourning, and in community.

In our community on campus, the Cascades Café serves this purpose for students. With the need for a constant caffeine drip in our veins, or a pick-me-up after a particularly long and boring class, the cafeteria serves as a meeting place for us to eat, and talk, and congregate as a student body.

In years past, school cafeterias have received a bad reputation. Students are served overly-processed, non-nutritional options, and the dreaded “Freshman 15” readily makes an appearance on most undergrads at some point.

Some universities have managed to excel in providing eateries that students are happy to frequent. University of Guelph was rated by Huffpost as having one of the best on-campus cafeterias in Canada, complete with candy stations, and five different meal plan options. University of British Columbia was tenth, featuring food trucks and international cuisine at Totem Dining Hall. What factors go into making a cafeteria “good?” How do these universities balance nutrition, sustainability, and affordability when it comes to their menu items?

Sustainable is a buzzword passed around on all the cool peoples’ lips. To be sustainable right now refers to using local ingredients, using utensils and other foodwares that are biodegradable, and providing jobs to people in the community. Consumers are advocating for environmentally friendly practices, and for increased sensitivity on the impact they have on the community and the international flora and fauna.

John Garrett, the chef manager at Dana Hospitality (the company that runs UFV’s cafeteria), comes from a fine dining background, and worked at Horizons on Burnaby Mountain before starting at Dana Hospitality. He received a medal from the B.C. Chefs’ Association, and wrote a cookbook called Horizons: The Cookbook. Dana Hospitality is in their second year serving at the UFV campus.

As much as possible, Dana procures local ingredients. The fresh dairy comes from Fraser Valley Farms, the pork from Britco in Langley and Johnston’s in Chilliwack, the bread from Monte Cristo Bakery in Delta. The cranberries are from Richmond, and the chicken is from Sunrise Poultry in Langley, and Hallmark Farms, a family-run farm located in Abbotsford. All the  salmon is B.C. wild caught and Oceanwise, and seafood is MSC certified, meaning that it is certified by the independent nonprofit organization Marine Stewardship Council as meeting the standard for sustainability.

There are nine categories of products listed on their website that come locally. This means the money spent by the university and its students goes back into the local economy. This means we support the farmers right down the street from campus.

Sustainable food also means buying seasonal. It involves integrating menu items with the food available throughout the year. It means pears in the fall, strawberries in the summer, and squash in the winter. Sustainability makes sure that what is being produced is able to be reproduced; for every person, every step of the way.

Not only is the food sustainable, Dana has taken into consideration the products they use on a regular basis, attempting to reduce their carbon footprint and use environmentally safe items.

“All of our disposable food service packaging and utensils are all biodegradable. This is much more expensive to buy than regular paper products, but Dana feels it is worth the extra cost to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Garrett.

According to the Statistics Canada website, in 2014 B.C. produced over 2.7 million tonnes of waste. That is an increase from 2012 by over 100,000 tonnes. That’s a lot of trash. Even for a university on the smaller side, our contribution to this number still matters.

In 2008 UFV signed the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action.

The document states that the university is “concerned about global climate change and its potential for adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects.” The document states that the university recognizes its responsibility to advance knowledge, demonstrate leadership in the community, nationally and globally, and that the expectations can be fulfilled by the university by sharing knowledge and research with students and the public. Included in this was the pledge to reduce the carbon footprint of the university, that they will reduce greenhouse emissions, and disclose and be accountable for their actions.

While the signing was over 10 years ago, it is encouraging to see that the university let these values inform their decision to hire Dana Hospitality, an outside company who also adheres to its ideals of creating a sustainable school community.

But there are more factors than simply the food sourcing and the products used that go into qualifying if a university cafeteria is sustainable. The financial aspect needs to be taken into consideration. How much of the money put into the café is expected to come out of students’ pockets?

Staff turnover plays a factor in financial stability. According to Management by Menu, a foodservice textbook: “[E]mployment time is shorter than in many other industries because it is often a means of livelihood while one prepares for a career in another area. This is a contributing factor to the high labor turnover rate.”

The Cascades Café and the Spirit Bear Café aren’t student-run. This means there is potential for a stable, long-term group of staff members employed by Dana.

“We have a small local group of dedicated chefs and food service associates working in the café. I am proud to say we have a very low staff turnover rate,” said Garrett.

According to a study done by the Centre for Hospitality Research at Cornell University, staff turnover costs $5,864 per employee. With line cook positions having a 110 per cent turnover rate per year, and managerial positions being at about 60 per cent per year, that cost is terrifying.

A low turnover rate means less money is spent on time training new hires, meaning more money to spare that can go toward creating sustainable and nutritious menu items for the students.

The food is sourced locally, and most of the items made in the cafeteria are made from scratch.

“All of our soups are made from scratch daily, all of our sauté station sauces have been developed in-house and made from scratch. These include teriyaki, Szechuan, spicy peanut, red curry, yellow curry, sweet and sour, etc.,” Garrett said. “All of our entrees are made from scratch including the beef curry on today, lasagnas, Southern fried chicken, taco salads. We have our own in-house-made taco seasoning, seasoned salt, cajun spice.”

In a time when so many of our products are prepackaged, chemical-laden, and overly-processed, it’s refreshing to see whole foods and natural ingredients used at a university.

“We make as much from scratch as we possibly can. I personally have been developing our recipes since day one, and we now have a very large recipe binder in the back,” said Garrett.

For many restaurants, it’s difficult to make a profit. Therefore, easy is usually the best option. Prepackaged, dump-and-cook, ready-made meals are more typical than one would expect. Cafeterias are no exception. Dana Hospitality seems to be bucking the stereotype of the cafeteria experience, and is doing a lot to step up and provide students with healthy options.

“Our sous chef Kristina, who has been with us since October, came from the Pan Pacific Hotel Vancouver, and to give you an idea of our level of real cooking, she noted right away that she was amazed [by] how much we actually made here at UFV from scratch,” Garrett said. “Fresh baked banana bread, diablo cookies, apple loaves, lemon loaves, Rice Krispies squares, Caesar dressing, our own house-made croutons, etc. — the list goes on.”

Garrett noted there was a pot of chicken stock being made while we spoke. Not only that, but that the sauces on the sauté station are all made from scratch, as are all of the soups and entrées. They reference the binder of recipes daily.

“There is a huge 40 litre pot of chicken stock on the stove that I started this morning. It will simmer for five hours until we take it off … and have our delicious homemade chicken broth for our soups and sauces,” said Garrett.

Many of us know that health is important, and as students it is especially so. A study conducted  by the University of California in Berkeley discovered that what we eat has an effect on our cognitive function. The study found that when the nutritional value of the food consumed was increased, so did the test scores of the students.  

“Medical and nutrition literature has long argued that a healthy diet can have a second important impact: improved cognitive function,” states the abstract of the research paper, “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance.” “Students at schools that contract with a healthy school-lunch vendor score higher on California state achievement tests. … The test score gains, while modest in magnitude, come at very low cost.”

While a fast food burger is a quick way to fill the hole in your stomach, the price paid doesn’t balance out against the $1.49, when realizing that what is put into our bodies affects performance throughout the day, including our academic pursuance.

But how much we pay in the café for our food fix can come across as unjustifiable when staring down that dollar menu during exam time. Money is tight during the best of times, but when it comes to something so mandatory as food, it becomes almost impossible to pay more than we think is fair.

A staff member at UFV commented on Twitter regarding the price of chocolate milk in the cafeteria. Robin Pittman, from the educational technology services department, tweeted: “I need to know why at the #UFV cafeteria I am paying $3.15 for 500ml of chocolate milk, but $1.12 for the 750ml of the same (Dairyland chocolate milk) at Walmart. I hope Dana Hospitality pays well & provides good benefits to their employees here. I can afford, but can students?”

“I’m not sure what to say about that, other than our mark-up is below industry standard,” said Garrett. “On that particular product we are running an approximate 50 per cent food cost.”

To calculate the price they need to sell this item for, there are a few factors that need to be taken into consideration. How much the item costs to procure, and how often the item is sold. If it’s expensive to buy for the restaurant, and doesn’t sell that often, it means that it’s going to have a high food cost. This means the cafeteria doesn’t make a lot of profit on this item.

Places like Walmart, Superstore, and Safeway can have a lower food cost because they have greater buying power, and can therefore receive better deals. That means they can buy, and sell, at a lower price than a school cafeteria could. So, comparing our university cafeteria to Walmart doesn’t create the best argument when considerations are taken into why these items are priced the way they are.

Looking at what goes into the food in the Cascades Café, it makes more sense why the prices are what they are. Using local ingredients is expensive, and so is making food that requires more effort than dumping it out of a bag. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to calculating how much a menu item can be sold for, there’s a lot more that has to go into that calculation than one may realize.

At the end of the day, the food can be healthy, it can come from a sustainable source, and you can figure out how to justify the price. But what you really want is something that tastes good. Eating is a necessity to life, but it doesn’t have to be a chore.

There is a difference between eating food with substance, and substances that resemble food.

School lunch rooms have often been criticized. They’ve been victims of stereotypes and environments where cardboard mac and cheese and pathetic excuses for salads have been allowed to thrive. The Cascades Café has decided to put an end to this ridiculous trend, and instead forge a path that enables students and staff alike to eat better and perform better in school and life.

The price may be an area of contention, but what goes into the making of a fair price is a lot more complex than just fixing a number to a plate. To determine if it is justified, dig a little deeper and try a little harder to understand all that goes into making that sandwich perched on your plate.

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