In addition to being hubs for intellectual growth and discovery, universities can be social spaces that foster great friendships and camaraderie. A significant component of this social space is, as any campus bar regular can tell you, the food and drink.
At MacEwan University, Aramark is the company that acts as the primary provider of food services, controlling the operations for nearly all food vendors on campus.
“We’re in our 17th year (with Aramark); we have always had contracted food services at the university,” said Susan Cooper, the manager for Conference and Food Services at MacEwan.
Cooper explained that the food service provider at MacEwan is chosen through a tendering process, wherein companies are invited to bid on the contract that is then granted to the company with the best bid.
Aramark’s contract with the university was recently extended, and Cooper said this was partially because the university was happy with their service. The other part was Aramark’s partnership on recent renovations.
“We needed to do a very large food service renovation at City Centre Campus,” Cooper said. “Part of the negotiation for the extension was (that) our food service partner, Aramark, contributed $750,000, which covered the scope of that renovation.”
The university’s satisfaction is not one that’s universal to all Aramark clients, however.
According to the Detroit Free Press, in Nov. 2014, “Prisoners at the high-security Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) held a weekend demonstration over food complaints.” Inmates cited a range of problems including food shortages and sanitation issues.
The paper also reported on another incident involving Aramark, where maggots were found in the company’s food supply in G.Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Michigan.
“There were earlier incidents of maggots found in or around food, though state officials later said the maggots couldn’t be blamed on Aramark so much as issues such as prison food storage,” the report said.
Although operations throughout different facilities vary, such reports raise flags about the potential for similar predicaments within MacEwan.
Cooper, however, said government and industry standards have paired well to ensure food quality and safety.
“How we protect our students is by having … contracted food service operator(s), who (have) occupational health and safety guidelines and practices, and who have sanitation practices, who are bringing products in that have already been pre-approved,” she said.
“(We) follow all of the Alberta legislation, and we follow any of the requirements that fall under the City of Edmonton in terms of our food service business licence.”
“Right from the start, our contractor plays a huge role in making sure that our food is safe. There’s supply-chain, occupational health, (and) sanitation,” Cooper said. “That covers off probably 90 per cent of things.”
Although food safety seems to be a non-issue on MacEwan’s campuses, student concerns about the price and kinds of food available do exist, in addition to concerns about how extensive the university’s contract is with Aramark.
Jason Garcia, vice president student life of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU), said the university’s contract with Aramark sometimes makes things difficult for student groups and clubs.
Garcia said it’s sometimes difficult for these groups to provide food at their events or hold events on campus altogether, as they are unable to involve non-Aramark caterers.
“It might not be a big issue to use MacEwan Food Services or Aramark for (some events), but for clubs, it makes a huge deal, because they (sometimes) don’t have enough funding,” Garcia said.
The extent of Aramark’s contract, which has exclusive catering rights to events held on campus, does not apply to the SAMU students’ lounge, which is a space exempt from this rule, Garcia added.
He said that while this reprieve is nice and allows for more options for student groups looking for catering, it’s not one shared by all MacEwan students.
“When you consider other campuses like (the Centre for the Arts and Communications) and (Alberta College Campus), they don’t have the students’ lounge with the same kind of exemptions,” he said.
“For clubs, it makes a huge deal, because they (sometimes) don’t have enough funding.”
Cooper acknowledged that in the past, MacEwan Food Services has kept in close contact with SAMU in order to best receive and deal with student feedback and complaints.
She added that student feedback has allowed for changes to be made where possible, and has served as a guide for improvements and expansions in the food options offered.
“We were hearing a lot about student’s wanting more fresh, more local, less franchised options, and that’s how we came to build what we have today, in partnership with Aramark,” she said.
Garcia added that although SAMU does not deal directly with the food services themselves, they encourage students to voice their concerns.
“We always empower students to bring their concerns directly to MacEwan Food Services, and they’re usually receptive to hearing them out,” he said. “Oftentimes, (MacEwan Food Services will) inform me when they get student concerns, just to keep me in the loop.”
The opportunity to communicate with Food Services is an important one that allows students to have their say in the kind of food experience they have on campus. Cooper said that in recent years, the university has worked together with Aramark to develop food vendors and options that are accessible to all students.
“We really just try to offer a variety so that when and if someone’s ready to buy something, there’s something there that can meet their needs,” she said.
Illustrations by Matthew Jacula and Alley MacLean.