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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Burger and fries? No thanks

Students are demanding healthier meals at fair prices - and some universities need to try harder to cater to them.

By Tara Perkins
The Globe and Mail

When Melissa Ferrin was shopping around for a university, there was only one thing on her mind: food. Ms. Ferrin is vegan and allergic to nuts. She knew that leaving home cooking behind could pose a challenge, so in her final year of high school she grilled university representatives about how they dealt with special diets.

Her research led her to the University of Guelph, the school ranked No. 1 in food services in the University Report Card survey.

Ms. Ferrin is still happy with her decision as she enters her fourth year at Guelph. On campus, she gets most of her meals from the Nature's Best counters.

“They are pretty good about substituting things,” she says. “And you could submit a recipe and if they liked it, they'd put it on the menu regularly.” One of Ms. Ferrin's diet staples was pizza with chickpeas instead of cheese.

Sheila Attwell, marketing manager for hospitality services at the University of Guelph, says she's proud of the fact that the school has an in-house, break-even operation, made up largely of Guelph alumni. She attributes its success to “a respect for students as very important customers.”

Most students told the URC survey they had only two demands when it comes to food: cheap and healthy. Many resented shelling out extra funds for more nutritious options, and noted that the most economical way to eat would be three meals a day of burgers, fries and pop.

Paul Glover, vice-president of Aramark Canada Ltd., a food service provider for more than 20 Canadian universities, says, “Students today are better informed about food choices available to them. The population has changed and with the new demographics came more interest in nutrition, vegetarian options and ethnic foods.”

The change in tastes has coupled with a change in university budgets to usher in a revolution of sorts in campus food services.

Last year, student organizations partnered with Aramark to complete a market-style dining hall at Wilfrid Laurier University called the Fresh Food Company, the first of its kind in Canada. Each meal is prepared individually and this year nutritional information including calories, grams of fat and sodium, will be available.

The concept appears to be a success, with Laurier ranking second after Guelph. Aramark has, however, provoked criticism from students at some of its other locations, including the school that came in last, the University of Ottawa, where students complained of a lack of competition among food providers on campus.

Krysten Jacques decided on Ottawa before visiting the campus. When she went to check it out before her first year, she panicked. “I saw what they had to offer and knew I couldn't get a meal card,” she says. “I'm not going to eat fast food two meals a day ... I realized I was going to have to buy a fridge and get a cab to the grocery store each week and do my own cooking.”

Aramark’s contracts for certain U of O locations came up for renewal this summer and were awarded to Compass Group Canada. “Having two food suppliers on campus will give students the rare opportunity of comparing prices and menus,” said a school spokesman.

Complaints weren't limited to schools using Aramark. At Concordia, ranked 31st, frustrated students decided to take matters in their own hands.

“We didn't feel the food on campus was affordable or nutritious,” says Janice Tiefenbach, one of a handful of students who started up the not-for-profit People's Potato. The Potato offers a full vegan lunch, including soup, a main course usually consisting of beans and vegetables, grains and a salad. A donation of $2.50 is requested, but students are able to dine free when they need it. A student levy of less than $10 a year helps to subsidize the endeavour. ROBTv Workopolis