University dumps corporate food -- and gets fresh, instead

The food was so bad, the president of the University of Winnipeg, Lloyd Axworthy, says that “we were at the very bottom. We were being hung in effigy by students...Even the poutine was bad.”

So, two years ago, he decided to buy out the contract of its large, multinational catering firm. In its place, the school established its own arm’s-length culinary company, Diversity Foods, in partnership with the local non-profit SEED Winnipeg.  

The Globe and Mail reports that it was mandated to serve organic, locally grown food of an ethnically diverse variety, and to employ inner-city residents as their primary labour force.

The University now has a service that provides much better food. At the same time it has increased revenue for the University.  In fact the food is so popular that the university’s executive chef is Winnipeg’s most in-demand caterer.  

What's more the school’s buying power has persuaded suppliers to finally provide sustainable, organic products to the city, once deemed too small a market. 

Notably, the transnational corporation Compass had been involved in the university's food system.  Kingston General Hospital recently agreed to contract out its food to Compass, with a plan to ship in sealed food containers from hundreds of miles away, arguing that it could not build a local food network (and so could not lead the change to fresh, local, and nutritious food).  The Winnipeg achievement (and the achievements at St. Joe's hospital in Guelph) suggest otherwise.  

 The University's new executive chef, Ben Kramer, was first hired as a consultant, to investigate whether a university cafeteria could provide fresh and sustainable meals for a reasonable price.  After being hired on full-time, he claims to have only made one real change.  “We brought in real food. That was it,” he said

Kramer dismisses claims that healthy food is too big a challenge for cash-strapped schools.  “If you’re strictly concerned with profits and you don’t care about anything else, then yeah, it’s more expensive,” he said. “But we approach this with the mindset of being sustainable and paying our staff well. Why not try and raise the industry standard?”

“We made a million dollars more this year than we did with the charter company,” Mr. Axworthy said. “The students have come back.”

For the Globe and Mail story on this, click here.  

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