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Chestnut, New College residents organize one-day boycott of dining hall for food unaffordability

Concerns include introduction of unhealthy options, production of plastic waste under new system
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Residents at Chestnut and New College held a one-day boycott of dining services.left: SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITYright: HAYDEN MAK/THE VARSITY
Residents at Chestnut and New College held a one-day boycott of dining services.left: SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITYright: HAYDEN MAK/THE VARSITY

Dons at Chestnut Residence and New College held a one-day boycott of the dining hall on November 1 to protest the continued lack of affordable food. They encouraged students not to access dining hall services during the day of the boycott and instead provided them with free food, funded in part by a grant from the Equity Studies Student Union as well as some donations.

The dons claim the boycott was successful, and they saw fewer students accessing the dining hall during that day. They reported that students and staff were generally interested in the goals of the boycott.

“We had an idea that we wanted to send a clear message that this was a concern for students and senior staff as well,” said Mike Lawler, a don at Chestnut. He added that the intent of the boycott was to “ensure that the administration understood the severity of the issue.”

Transition to pay-per-item model

Beginning in September, the dining halls at Chestnut and New College transitioned from an all-you-care-to-eat model to a pay-per-item model, a system that residents claim is unaffordable, unhealthy, and not environmentally friendly. Colin Porter, Executive Director Food and Beverage Services & Campus Events, wrote to The Varsity that the change was due to COVID-19 restrictions on buffet-style food service.

After pushback from residents, food services removed pay-per-weight from the dining halls, which previously required students to pay for things like bones in meat.

Some items have also decreased in price by 10–25 per cent. However, New College residents have brought up a new concern that some prices are actually rising or fluctuating, with no prior warning. In early October, a yogurt parfait cost $4.99, and two weeks later, the same item cost $5.39. 

Even with some price reductions, the dons are still concerned that it is not feasible to eat three meals a day, especially when factoring in drinks and snacks. Residents are allocated $24 per day within the fixed price of their meal plan.

In response to some of the concerns that have been raised, Porter wrote to The Varsity that food services, as a self-funded department “must therefore work to cover all of our costs, while appreciating that our community is very price-sensitive.” He added that food services will be adding improved communication materials with information regarding allergens and ingredients to the dining halls. 

Porter also wrote that food services hopes to create a “residential food services advisory committee” with student representation. However, the dons expressed concern that certain formations of such a committee might actually limit the amount of student feedback received.

Demands from dons, residents

The dons are not convinced that there is no other option that is possible during COVID-19. Amidst the pandemic over the summer, the New College dining hall offered a system where residents paid a flat fee per dining hall entry and were able to get as much food as they wanted. 

For now, the residents want to see a return to the all-you-care-to-eat model, somewhat similar to the model New College had over the summer, which could both accommodate COVID-19 restrictions and provide students the ability to eat as much as they need.

They also hope to see the return of free access to water. Access to water stations was removed along with the other changes, and residents instead were given the option to purchase a plastic water bottle. 

Porter noted that the bottled water ban will be reinstated in January 2021, and food services expects to eliminate single-use plastics by December 2021. Still, residents are concerned with how much extra trash is being produced now under the pay-per-item model as a whole, where every item is individually packaged in some way.

For Sarina Ianelli, being a lead don at New College is her only source of income, leaving the dining hall as her only food option. She said that she spends around $40 a day to feed herself, much higher than the $24 per day allocated by the meal plan.

Ianelli said that she is hearing from the dons on her team that students are still having problems with the quality of food as well, something which can negatively impact well-being. “It’s one thing to be able to afford a meal, but it’s also another to enjoy your meal,” said Ianelli. 

“And we’re seeing a lot of students not enjoying themselves with their food, and that’s a whole other issue.”