theAQ samples food services at St. Thomas University, and looks at how other universities are putting their meals on center stage

Different Kitchens, Different Plans: STU meal plans are on a “declining balance system,” which means students pay for individual meal items. Mount  A and SMU are both on an “all-you-care-to-eat” system, where students pay or swipe their meal cards before entering the meal hall. (Tom Bateman/AQ)
Different Kitchens, Different Plans: STU meal plans are on a “declining balance system,” which means students pay for individual meal items. Mount A and SMU are both on an “all-you-care-to-eat” system, where students pay or swipe their meal cards before entering the meal hall. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

In the small town of Brunswick, Maine, residents at Bowdoin College are dining on roast pork loin with a cider gravy and wild rice with quinoa salad and dried fruit. They can top off their plates with organic vegetables from the school’s garden and for dessert they’ll have the choice of pistachio pudding, raspberry Jell-O, or apple crisp.

“Here, food is really kind of a big deal,” says Michelle Gaillard, associate director of food services at Bowdoin.

Meanwhile STU students are feasting on entrees like “beef ‘n’ taters” with steamed corn “nibblets” or spaghetti and meat sauce.

 A burger and fries (top) is a common choice at STU’s cafeteria.  At Bowdoin College, fancy meals are a specialty, including this plate of green curried mussels. Photos submitted.
A burger and fries (top) is a common choice at STU’s cafeteria. At Bowdoin College, fancy meals are a specialty, including this plate of green curried mussels. Photos submitted.

With a menu that includes lobster, steak and Vietnamese pho, Bowdoin is consistently ranked one of the top American schools for food, so maybe the comparison with STU isn’t fair.

But as recruitment and retention of students becomes increasingly competitive, other Maritime universities are beefing up food services. And as STU’s contract with food services company Aramark nears completion, the school is exploring its options.

Earlier this month, a group of administrators and students visited cafeterias at Mount Allison University and St. Mary’s University. Steak and Vietnames pho weren’t on the table, but new ways of delivering food to students certainly were.

Vice-president Student Life Lydia MacDonell was on the trip. She was impressed with what she saw.

“I found that their system not only enhanced the quality of food but the whole dining experience in general.”

STU meal plans are on a “declining balance system,” which means students pay for individual meal items. Mount A and SMU are both on an “all-you-care-to-eat” system, where students pay or swipe their meal cards before entering the meal hall. Once they’re in, they can have their choice of anything that’s available.

“It’s like going to a buffet every day,” says Stuart Macdonald, assistant director of dining services at Mount A.

Like STU, Mount A’s food services are provided by Aramark, but unlike our declining balance system, Mount A students have a meal plan never runs out of money for food.

“It takes the onus off the student to do the math in their head about how much money they have left and whether or not they can afford something,” says MacDonald.

MacDonell says the all-you-care-to-eat systems is much more efficient than STU’s. The lines move faster and food items aren’t individually packaged. But, she says, what it comes down to is just better food.

“I have a real problem with vegetables coated in butter and oil,” she says. “I found the food quality to be better at Mount A and SMU.”

Mount A’s cafeteria come with perks too, including a vegetarian section which serves only veggie meals every day and a stir-fry station where students can get food made to order all week.

***

At Acadia University, students are also on unlimited meal plans.

Chartwells, an Aramark rival, is on a four-year contract with the university. Scott Roberts, a representative for the school, says the company was chosen by an unusual competitive bid process. Three years ago, the school put on an exhibition. All interested companies came to campus and and gave students an opportunity to sample their food.

“The students chose Chartwells.”

Those who live in residence must purchase five or seven-day unlimited meal plans. Once they’ve paid, students can make as many trips to the dining hall as they like and there are no tough choices to make between an expensive salad or cheap fries.

“We don’t have that kind of thing going on,” says Roberts. “There’s no differentiation [in price] between healthy foods and other foods.”

Acadia’s menu, which can be found online, offers the same kind of grub as STU. But on Acadia’s website detailed nutritional facts are just one click away and vegetarian options are clearly marked.

STU’s online menu is an Excel spreadsheet which hasn’t been updated for over three weeks.

If students at Acadia don’t see anything they like on the menu, they can cook their own meal. An option called “my pantry” offers students a kitchen stocked by Chartwells, where they can prepare their own meals the way they like.

Cape Breton University, also with Chartwells, just switched from a declining balance system to an unlimited meal plan system.

Doug Connors, food services director, says the school always had plans to switch to an all-you-care-to -eat system, but until this year they didn’t have the facilities.

“We recently built a new dining hall that made it possible for us to adopt this system.”

***

But not everyone wants to see change.

First-year student Michelle Davison is happy with the declining balance system.

“It helps us keep track…it is money. It’s not just a card that you scan, it’s money. It helps you keep track of the money you’re spending. Here, you look at something and think ‘that’s expensive. That’s six bucks,’ and [at other schools], they probably don’t think of that.”

Davison’s one complaint is that STU cafeterias don’t always have healthy options.

“We’d like to be able to eat healthy, but we don’t have the choice to,” she says. Davison doesn’t like the fact that salads and wraps aren’t always available at STU’s cafeterias.

First-year student Missy Tompkins is a vegetarian who doesn’t always find it easy to eat at the Forest Hill residence cafeteria.

“I’m not sure if it’s really different on main campus or not but I’m a vegetarian, and at centre stage, there’s only one vegetarian option and it’s usually really gross.”

But while Tompkins and Davison aren’t always satisfied with food options, they say the service has always been great.

Davison says she appreciates that Aramark workers make the effort to get to know the students.

“I don’t even have to tell them what to put on my wrap. They’ll just be like, ‘hey Michelle.’ And they just make it.”

***

Ryan Sullivan, director of recruitment at STU, was also on the scouting trip. He isn’t saying which way the university is leaning.

“Right now we’re just looking at the options and seeing what’s out there and getting some input from students,” he says. “Because really our goal is to have our food services meet the demands of students and if there’s ways to improve on what we’re doing then we want to continue to improve on what we’re doing.”

If change does come, it won’t be cheap. Unlimited meals plans cost a few hundred dollars more on average than STU’s most expensive meal plan and eating at a swanky cafeteria like Bowdoin’s is double the price.

But even at Bowdoin, there are more important things than food. Gaillaird says that 99 per cent of students live on campus, so the university is focused on creating a homey atmosphere in the cafeterias.

“It’s cold and dark in winter and we try to provide a sense of community for the students, which for us is a warm inviting place which is our dining hall.”

With files from Tara Chislett
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