In July, lead chefs with McMaster Hospitality Services medalled at two different university culinary competitions. Over the course of several days, teams battled it out in the kitchen, giving university chefs the opportunity to stretch their cooking muscles.
“What people don’t realize is that a lot of our team here, the chef managers here, are very high-end chefs,” explained Chris Roberts, Hospitality Services Director. The dishes served at these competitions would not be served at campus dining halls, but would instead be used for high-end catering functions at the university such as faculty events.
While McMaster’s chefs may have earned the gold star with judges, students have raised many concerns about food on campus. A short online request for comment on meal options yielded dozens of complaints on a wide range of topics. Students were especially concerned with the price of healthier options, as well as the lack of multicultural foods and cross-contamination with allergens.
Ellen Veinot, a second year Justice, Political Philosophy and Law student was shocked by how expensive produce was on campus.
“I think having more fruit and veggie options would be good,” she said. “No wonder people put on so much weight when it’s cheaper to buy an entire plate of mozza sticks than a sliced up orange and some watermelon.”
Veinot added, “It’s just not enough food for your buck.”
Second year Commerce student Andrew Lee agrees.
“Most days I would go for dinner somewhere and think, ‘Okay, I can get a dessert-sized [container] of fruit or I can eat a burger and fries and get a cheapish drink.”
Lee entered first year committed to staying healthy and avoiding the Freshman 15, but found that the limited options on campus made that difficult.
“And despite having the Wellness Centre advertising that a healthy lifestyle makes for a better experience as a student, the school sure makes it pretty damn hard to even edge the line of healthy eating,” he said.
Multicultural options lacking
Nutritional value is not the only issue students take with campus food. Maxwell Lightstone, fourth year Mechanical Engineering student and McMaster Hillel executive member discussed the limited kosher options at campus dining halls.
Lightstone explained that in his experience, there were so few kosher options on campus that he was forced to look to the surrounding neighbourhood for meals.
“It is pretty disruptive to have to go off campus for lunch,” he said.
None of these concerns were foreign to Roberts.
“We’re not subsidized by the government or by the university, so we don’t get cheap food. We buy it just like any other restaurant. So fruits and veggies are crazy expensive, as is beef and dairy,” he explained.
Roberts added that McMaster has the some of the lowest meal plan prices in the country and that the university’s retail costs are mid-pack compared to other schools in Canada. The university also absorbs the cost of inflation.
“We raise our prices once a year, not on everything, and we have a five percent cap set by the university,” he said. Roberts gave the example of dairy and beef, both of which have undergone an 11 percent price increase in the last year. “We don’t tack that onto the food, we don’t adjust our pricing with inflation.”
To address cultural food issues, Roberts has met with student groups such as McMaster Hillel to develop action plans to increase options for those students.
“They weren’t happy with what we were doing on campus with kosher, which was being done out of Bridges with a rabbi. It wasn’t meeting their needs, so we scrapped that and started over,” he said.
A selection of kosher snacks and sandwiches can now be found in La Piazza, and Roberts said it will be expanded for the upcoming year.
“It’s very expensive to bring it in, we make no profit from it. We sell it for what we bring it in at. It’s more of a service we’re providing, so we’re happy to expand that.”
Lightstone was happy to see the change, and looks forward to seeing how the selection will expand in the coming year.
For students with severe allergies however, Hospitality Services could still be doing more. Second year Biology student Sonia Jarvie would like to see a better labeling system implemented to warn students of allergens as well as a reduction in cross-contamination. “There was a certain element of risk when trying new foods and even when having meals I’d had before,” she said.
While Roberts admitted that it is impossible to guarantee a dining area has not come in contact with certain ingredients, he explained that McMaster uses a sophisticated system to meet with students with allergies, and show them the different menus and options on campus. According to Jarvie, however, she was never offered the chance to go through this process.
In the two years that Roberts has served as director, he has seen many improvements to Hospitality Services.
“We’ve built tremendous relationships with staff, faculty, student groups, cultural groups [and] the MSU. And it’s made Hospitality Services better. I meet with every student and group that contacts me and has questions. I will meet with them personally,” he said.
Roberts knows his job is not complete, however.
“People ask when we’re going to be done, and it’s like, we’ll never be done. Hospitality is always evolving and every year we have to adjust to meet students’ needs.”