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Noticed changes to dining hall food? The culprit might be supply chain issues

U of T dining halls cope with food shortages with mixed results for students
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Students have observed changes in dining hall options. MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY
Students have observed changes in dining hall options. MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

The food shortages affecting Canada have reached U of T’s dining halls. Food Services has developed and implemented strategies to reduce the effects of supply issues on what shows up on students’ plates. However, many disruptions in the food supply seem to be here to stay — and their effects could worsen in the future.

A national food shortage

Canada is facing a food shortage that is likely to get worse. In a joint statement released in early November, 21 produce supply organizations from across the US and Canada warned that there was a “serious threat” of food shortages. Beyond reducing variety, these shortages could cause ripple effects in society. 

The lack of food causes increased prices: food inflation for November was 3.8 per cent. With inflation outpacing wages, it is more difficult for people with lower incomes to access food. 

The food shortages hitting Canadian grocery shelves reflect broader issues in the global supply chain, a carefully orchestrated system that creates products from raw goods and delivers them to retailers and consumers. Problems range from labour shortages — including a lack of truck drivers to shuttle food — to a shortage of spots for ships to port. Delays in getting items to customers have greater effects on produce, because it’s perishable. “When the product finally comes in, it’s going to be on its last legs, if any legs at all,” said Joe Sbrocchi, the general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, in an interview with CTV News. Plus, climate change, which has led to severe drought in western Canada and the western US, has posed further problems for food production. 

These issues become all the more pertinent as the Canadian growing season ends. Because more food must be imported during winter, supply chain disruptions will have a greater effect on availability. With all of these pieces in play, this winter is likely to be challenging for consumers and producers alike. 

Shortages at U of T

U of T dining halls have not been immune to these problems. In an email to The Varsity, U of T Food Services acknowledged that it is “experiencing supply chain challenges across all products.” 

“Much of the supply chain has been impacted, from the local farmer to the manufacturer to the transportation of goods,” it wrote. This has resulted in “week to week” fluctuations in the availability of items and sharp increases in the cost of supplies.

However, dining halls are finding ways to deal with these issues. For instance, the culinary team at U of T meets periodically to develop recipes that take ingredient availability and cost into account. Another way Food Services has dealt with these challenges is by sourcing alternative products and buying in larger quantities to make sure all products are in stock. When it is unable to acquire a product, it can adapt the menu and ingredients, since U of T largely cooks its meals from scratch. 

The troubles encountered by dining hall staff have had mixed effects on students. Some students have noticed differences in food availability since school began. Two students who wrote to The Varsity noted instances where food had run out before closing hours. 

Claire Gordon, a U of T student who responded to a survey from The Varsity, noticed discrepancies between the posted meal signs and what is being served. In their survey response, Gordon noted, “Most of the time they do line up, but every so often something will be substituted.” In their view, this was “not a problem at all, just an observation.” 

Other students have had more impactful encounters with food shortages. Bianca Quilliam, another U of T student who responded to the survey, said that when she arrived at a station advertising Beyond Burgers and chicken burgers, she was told that the dining hall was out of Beyond Burgers. She said that, when she asked for the chicken burger, “[the Food Services employee] was like, well, I don’t have any more buns or bagels.” Quilliam’s order morphed from a Beyond Burger to a plate with chicken and burger toppings. 

However, the majority of the 17 students surveyed for this article had observed no changes in food availability or had even seen food items added to the menu. When asked how they had observed food offerings change, many discussed improved fare. “I saw ice cream for the first time recently in Trinity’s Strachan hall,” wrote Jared de Silva in a response to a survey from The Varsity

For Manal Kamran, small improvements have made the largest difference. In a response to the survey, she wrote, “The rice is a bit more cooked. The zucchini is cut into smaller pieces. The little things.”