In Defence of the Dining Halls

This article is solely the writer’s opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of UBC Food Society

It’s lunch time. You walk into the Totem Park dining hall on high alert knowing that you could be attacked at any moment. UBC dining halls are dangerous places. Hazardous objects could be hidden in your food, and you assume the risk of having all your money stolen with a single swipe of your UBC card. It’s a war zone to say the least. You may choose to arm yourself with weapons; possibly the cutlery you stole during first semester. However, you must not forget to complain about how little cutlery remains in the dining hall- by doing so you will surely confuse the enemy.

You are now ready to face your biggest challenge yet; finding a well-balanced meal that fits within the confines of your minimum meal plan. You think you have it. Upon further inspection, you drain your dish and realize you have enough oil to power a lawn mower. Realizing you will starve to death before finding a nutritious lunch, you post your last dying words on Facebook. You will get a few hundred likes, and it might, just might, make the struggle you have been living worth your while.

The above account is a slightly dramatized version of real events. The only complete fabrication can be found in the first two sentences. Nobody eats lunch at Totem.

My apologies for that lame attempt at comedic relief. In these times of great struggle, we must keep about ourselves, if nothing else, our senses of humour. What struggle am I referring to? Many first years (including myself) have come to the harsh realization that they will have nowhere near enough meal dollars to last until the end of the semester. I must say, it’s a tough pill to swallow. I thought I could do it, I really did. I told myself I could subsist on the infamous UBC minimum meal plan, which has many first years (and upper years… and high-school students…) up in arms, ready to prosecute UBC Food Services to the full extent of the law.

Okay. Maybe things aren’t quite that extreme. But if you were to go on online, you’d wonder if students were fighting for buffets in their dining halls, or to abolish slavery.

This is all fine and well. I’ve had my eyes opened to a number of valid complaints that should be brought to the attention of the UBC Food Services immediately. I’ve heard every reason why the dining halls should be brought to their knees, and I must say, I’m intrigued. Quite frankly though, I’ve heard enough of the same points repeated time and time again. I have the utmost respect for those speaking up for what they believe in, but in this case, I’m ready for a second opinion.

I am a food writer (for a website nobody’s heard of), so it is my duty (not really) to dive deep in to food-related issues on campus. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am also employed by UBC Food Services. That’s right, I’m one of the bad guys. But before you disregard my opinions as biased garbage, I must remind you that 877 of you asked for me to step forward…

Again, before you write me off, please know that I am on your side. I worked two jobs throughout high-school so I could save up enough to move away for university, and I feel the full effect of every dollar UBC forces me to spend. Because of this, I am still working so I can continue to pay my own way through school. I do not take this matter lightly, and because of this, I feel students should hear another side to the story. Let’s start from the beginning.

Just over two weeks ago, a frustrated “jnternational” student made a post in the UBC Class of 2020 group, where he expressed displeasure “cuz” he only had “7.64$” per day left to spend “on in res food”. All jokes aside, I am deeply thankful for this post because without it, I would have been blissfully ignorant to the fact that I was running out of meal dollars too. His passionate remarks had me eager to jump into the comment mosh pit below, before something stopped me dead in my tracks. $7.64 per day? I recalled my half-ass attempt at calculating my daily allowance at the beginning of the year, and something didn’t add up…

As it turns out, $7.64 per day is… an alternative fact. I am quoting another person who offered some corrections in the comment section below. I’ll show his post here:

Yeah… $7.64 could be the right value. We can get some victims from the Bowling Green Massacre to confirm! At least nobody saw the post with the false information…

Well, everyone saw the corrections made to the original claims… right?

Okay. I won’t dwell too much on this first post. The opinions expressed have gained quite a bit of traction in the UBC community since, and have blossomed into real conversation backed by an incredible petition. MASSIVE shout out to the girl who put it together by the way. Seriously, 11/10. If I were a law school admissions office, I’d let you in based off of this document alone. That being said, there are a few minor fallacies in your arguments, and some facts that I think have been taken out of context. Plus, there is one blatant mistake.

The Minimum Meal Plan:

            I’m kidding… I know, I KNOW. This is beside the point you are trying to make in the petition, where you draw attention to the enormous overhead and high food prices etc. (which I’ll discuss later). But, when you lead off a petition by using the minimum meal plan as a point of reference, you are just begging the snotty adult reading it to throw out the classic, “should’ve got a bigger plan”. I am personally embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t look at the plan more closely before choosing it. If I had been more realistic with myself from the start, and purchased the varsity plan, I’d have well over a thousand dollars left to spend before the end of the April. The double upgrade would have been costly, sure, but no more of it would have gone towards “overhead” and “capital improvement”- every penny would have been mine to spend. For the sake of full transparency; my parents did agree to pay for the minimum meal plan, but beyond that, feeding myself has been my responsibility. $894.38 is NOT pocket change by any means (the difference in price between varsity and minimum), but I’d have willingly assumed that cost if it meant less stress come April. I’m going to have to feed myself regardless.

Comparison with Other Schools:

            It’s reasonable that we, students unhappy with our university, are eager to compare UBC to any and every school that has it better than we do. People always want what they can’t have. Rather than picking and choosing however, I believe we should compare UBC to McGill (as is done incorrectly in the petition), and U of T, seeing as on paper, they are the two Canadian schools comparable to our own. Both are in big cities, and boast similar reputations.

Let’s start with McGill. I am very sorry to say this, but “$4820 (80% meal plan)” is yet another alternative fact. On McGill’s website, it clearly states that their “mandatory meal plan” costs “$5475”. I repeat, $5475. It is true that students get to spend $4500 of that, which is much more than UBC students get to spend, but there is a huge downfall; students cannot choose between different plans. If a residence has no kitchen (which most don’t, like UBC), they are forced to fork over $5475, which is $330.76 more than UBC’s VARSITY meal plan. Those struggling with UBC’s minimum plan would be bankrupt in McGill’s system with no choice in the matter. I sincerely hope this comparison will be removed from the petition.

Then there’s U of T. Toronto (my lovely home town) is second only to Vancouver when it comes to cost of living. The school is also the closest Canadian school to UBC on the QS world rankings. Because of this, I feel it should not be left out of any proper comparison. U of T offers a large variety of plans, which you can customize if and when they run out. However, if you choose to eat primarily in the dining halls at U of T, like McGill, you have only one choice of plan. For $655 a month, students get unlimited access to two campus dining halls, which adds up to $5240 over 8 months. This is $95.76 more than UBC’s VARSITY meal plan. Because the plan’s unlimited in nature, it is hard to tell how much of student’s money goes towards food, and how much goes towards overhead. Either way, those struggling with UBC’s minimum meal plan, many of which are requesting unlimited buffets, would come nowhere close to being able to afford U of T’s unlimited plan.

Continuing on the topic of U of T, they could give away meal plans for free and we’d still be getting a better deal here at UBC. I’d like to qualify what I’m about to say with this; I am not an international student, and because of this, I’m in a much easier financial situation. I understand the importance of getting a quality education, and can appreciate those who have come from abroad in pursuit of learning. However, since we’re in the business of comparing things, you might be interested in knowing that U of T charges $7000+ dollars in tuition more per year to international students than UBC does. All of a sudden, the couple hundred needed to top up your meal plan doesn’t seem so bad. This discrepancy exists with domestic tuition as well, but is obviously more impactful on international students. The only reason I bring this up is that as students, we are paying for the world-renown experience we’re receiving (food included), and compared to others receiving a similar product, we’re getting quite a bargain.

And SFU? Vancouver Island University? Why are we comparing any aspect of our university to schools that are in a completely different league? C’mon guys.

Overhead/Capital Investment:

            Ah yes, the mysterious “Capital Improvement” and “Overhead” fees. As for the former, I can only speculate as to where the money went, but I have a hunch. Probably a third of the people reading this are sitting in it (or on top of it) right now. According to the housing website, the $350 taken from each student’s fees, regardless of plan size, goes into what UBC calls the CIF (Capital Improvement Fund). This fund’s purpose is to “manage debt undertaken to build and upgrade residence dining facilities”. Hmmm… I wonder if any new dining facilities have been built recently…

I’m sure many have already considered this possibility, but nowhere in the petition is it acknowledged. Being the respectful students that we are, it may be a nice gesture to thank UBC for the new addition to our campus.

“WTF. I didn’t ASK for Orchard to be built. Why the fuck should I have to pay for it? By the way, Open Kitchen sucks ass. I want a refund”

I feel your frustration. As one of the few students that lives in Totem and actually eats in Totem, I wish my money weren’t funding Orchard’s dining hall either. That being said, it’s a necessary evil. If it weren’t for Orchard Commons, and the eatery attached to it, 1050 students would have nowhere to live. Actually, in real terms, a thousand students would not have been accepted into UBC… That’s right, a couple of your friends, hell, even you might not be here right now without Orchard, and by extension, Open Kitchen. Feel free to show your appreciation.

Food Prices/Quality:

Unknown by most; the executive chef of UBC Food Services, David Speight, has two culinary degrees, one of which came from the Culinary Institute of America (arguably the best cooking school in the world). Speight has run some of the most iconic restaurants in Vancouver, and is more than qualified to do his job. Furthermore, all full-time cooks at UBC must have a cooking diploma in addition to a Food Safe certification. The food end of UBC Food Services is run by well-educated professionals, so I ask, what more can be done to improve quality? After UBC Food Services, you might want to petition for Gordon Ramsay to work Vanier’s grill, Mario Batali to man the pasta station, and Jamie Oliver to prep healthy options for the salad bar.

Let’s look at this from a different angle, and examine the value, or rather, lack of value received relative to what you pay. There’s no easy way to put it. Food at UBC is ridiculously expensive. Rather than being angry about it though, I have tried to look for reasons as to why eating on campus is so expensive. The answer might be standing right in front of you- literally.

UBC Food Services employs hundreds of full-time unionized workers, as well as 200+ student workers. Workers in the union make far above the industry standard, and receive great benefits. I’m sure you’ve seen dining hall employees eating the free mountains of food they are entitled to during every one of their shifts. Although, I shouldn’t say the meals are free. We’re the ones paying for them.

“WTF. Why should I have to pay for someone else’s fucking meal? And why do they get to be paid so well when I haven’t eaten in weeks? So triggered rn…”

Let’s put it this way. These workers have to live and work in Vancouver, BC, the third most expensive city IN THE WORLD. As UBC Food Services says on their website, they are “100% self-funded”, so these employees’ wages are likely reflected in the price of food. I’m sure if workers were paid minimum wage, your stir-fry would be quite a bit cheaper than it is currently. That being said, do these workers not deserve to earn a decent living? Their jobs are anything but glamorous, and many have families to feed with homes to pay for in a city where housing prices are astronomical. If dining halls were to lower prices across the board, as suggested in the petition, where would these savings come from? On the off chance that UBC Food Services isn’t hoarding massive profits, your proposals might lead to a few lay-offs. No business is a zero-sum game. These workers rely on your fees the same way you rely on them to feed you.

Oh, and the first ones to be let go? Probably a few of the 200+ student workers that rely on part-time work to keep themselves afloat. We student workers are not part of the union, and are completely expendable. Seeing as this petition is looking out for “the first-year resident students of UBC”, you might want to consider all first-year residents’ best interests.

Although I’m getting tired of citing things off of UBC Food Services’ website (believe it or not, I’m not getting paid to do this), there is one more point I found interesting. Profits earned by the UBC Food Services “help fund UBC”. Although they are not clear about what exactly they mean, I can imagine any number of things currently “being funded” at UBC. Scholarships… Infrastructure… A giant pool that looks like an alien space station… We may be getting our money back without even knowing it. Although, I wouldn’t mind my refund in cash.

Sanitation vs. Buffet:

            Last but not least. The final body paragraph begins by talking about health inspections and somehow finishes with a request for buffets- two seemingly unrelated topics. When you take a step back however, the paragraph lays out a neat little conundrum for you. On one hand, students seem to be very concerned about everything from “improper sanitation and handling of equipment, to pest control”- which is completely valid. On the other hand, students are requesting a 24-hour buffet, using SFU’s nifty tagline to bolster their argument; “eat at a REAL student’s schedule”. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Here’s a little-known fact; in French, the word “buffet” loosely translates to “cesspool”.

Yes, I find it kind of funny how students trust the same dirty workers that they called out for failing their health inspection to operate a 24-hour buffet. It’s like… wanting to study in the mountains and get a quality education at the same time. You can’t have both. You have to pick between SFU and UBC.

Of course, the proposed solution to the health code problem in the petition is “more efficient training”. That wouldn’t cost money would it? Nah, probably not. On the off chance that it would though, who do you think would foot the bill?

I guess the final, overarching point I’m trying to make is this: students have requested change to literally every aspect of UBC Food Services. I understand the reason behind this- if you’re going to make a petition and fight for change, you want to make that you cover all the bases. That being said, think back to Christmas as a child (if you celebrated Christmas that is). You ask for everything you can possibly think of in your letter to Santa, knowing it is the one time per year that he gives a shit about what you want. Of course, you don’t get anywhere near as much as you ask for, and you end up with a few things you didn’t really want that badly in the first place. Eventually you learn to narrow your list of requests to just a couple things you really want, and you boost your chances of getting them. This kind of applies in this situation too. As it currently stands, the petition asks for better food quality, more efficient employee training, a better selection of healthy foods, a revamped buffet system, a complete record of all financial transactions, and a panel of UBC Food Services employees to answer all questions students have. Oh, and all of this needs to happen for a lot less money.

I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t think this is going to happen. Don’t look now, but petition signing is slowing, and it doesn’t look like all first-years are on board.

Hey, maybe by sharing this, the petition will get a boost from people signing in spite of me! No publicity is bad publicity, right? On that note, I’d like to extend a YUGE thank you to anyone that has read this far into the article… it was quite a long one. Whether you agree with what I’ve said or not, I hope we can continue this conversation, seeing as it is in everyone’s best interest to eat. If not, go ahead and spew some hate. Anyone that’s still with me at this point has every right to do so.

 

Warm regards,

One first year resident student of UBC

 

References:

https://www.change.org/p/ubc-change-for-the-ubc-mandatory-meal-plan-and-dining-halls

http://vancouver.housing.ubc.ca/applications/fees-payments/meal-plan/

https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2016

https://www.mcgill.ca/foodservices/mealplans/residential/home-base-dollars-vs-flex-dollars

https://ueat.utoronto.ca/purchase-a-meal-plan/

http://utsc.utoronto.ca/admissions/tuition-fees

http://www.ubyssey.ca/news/so-pretty-but-construction-soooo/

http://www.food.ubc.ca/jobs/

http://www.food.ubc.ca/about-us/

 

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