Campus food providers under pressure from student tastes to revamp menus

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TORONTO — The University of Toronto's downtown campus will cut ties with its food service provider, Aramark, later this summer and start running most of its on-campus dining options itself, the latest school to satisfy what appears to be a growing appetite for fresh meals.

The move will centralize most of the St. George campus food operations and see a main kitchen provide fresh food to some retail outlets that don't have kitchens and rely heavily on packaged food, said Anne Macdonald, the university's director of ancillary services.

Chefs, for example, will cook soups and sauces from scratch instead of ordering from a production facility, Macdonald said.

Such changes were called for by students, faculty and staff in focus groups leading up to the decision not to renew Aramark's contract, she said.

"This is the voice of the students," said chef Joshna Maharaj, who consults with universities and colleges on menu changes.

"They are increasingly dissatisfied — as they should be — with really highly processed foods and a campus food service that is sort of an irritating afterthought."

Maharaj was once the assistant director of food services and an executive chef at Toronto's Ryerson University. She helped the school revamp its menus several years ago.

In 2013, the university was nearing the end of its food service contract with Aramark. It asked food service providers for proposals on how to do things differently as students became increasingly displeased with expensive, low-quality eats, she said.

The university partnered with Chartwells and a greater emphasis was placed on purchasing local, seasonal produce, among other changes, she said.

Last year, the Canadian Federation of Students voiced concern over the quality of campus food across Canada after images surfaced of raw meat and mouldy food served at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

In Lethbridge, Alta., students voiced their desire for healthier options and local ingredients when the University of Lethbridge debated whether to renew Sodexo's contract in 2012, said James Booth, executive director of the university's ancillary services.

"They're much more astute consumers and they have more refined needs," he said.

Booth compared the evolution of menu offerings to that of residence amenities.

Twenty-five years ago, students lived in basic dormitories, he said.

"Today they have granite countertops, and they have flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi and Netflix," he said. "You have to keep up."

The University of Lethbridge signed a contract with Aramark after their proposal fit the university's vision for updated facilities and menus.

It's hard for schools to make such a dramatic shift from a system they've relied on for a decade or longer, said Maharaj. But the major food service providers know that educational and other institutions, like hospitals, are starting to follow consumer demands, she said.

She said it's important for food service providers to be open to working with their clients to figure out how to better serve their needs.

Aramark has started featuring more international flavours, as well as gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options at the several hundred schools it works with, said Karen Cutler, vice-president of the company's corporate communications.

The company stays competitive and retains about 95 per cent of its clients by surveying students and following market trends to suit students' "ever-changing needs," she said in an email.

Booth said the University of Lethbridge is happy with its partnership with Aramark so far.

Maharaj said the schools and food service providers can work together to overhaul menus so that they offer more sustainable and healthy options.

"I think that they really could be allies and change agents, if we position them well and support them and ask them to do these different things."


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