UTSC students have expressed concerns about the limited access to affordable and nutritious food on campus. This issue is particularly prevalent for students with religious dietary restrictions, as indicated in a recent petition by student groups.
The Varsity spoke to students about the specific issues they face and the steps they’d like the university to take in response.
Concerns over access to healthy and affordable food
Menilek Beyene started at UTSC as an undergraduate student in 2013 and is now completing his PhD in UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. In an interview with The Varsity, he said that access to healthy and affordable food has been an issue at UTSC for a long time.
There are two main food hubs at UTSC: the Student Centre, operated by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), and the Marketplace, run by Aramark under contract with UTSC administration.
In an interview with The Varsity, Devlin Grewal — a recent UTSC alum and current research technician with UTSC — characterized the Student Centre’s offerings as “fast food” and noted that, although the Marketplace offers “somewhat healthy food,” they charge a lot for small portions.
Beyene said that he decides where to eat on campus based on cost effectiveness. He often purchases foot-long sandwiches at the Subway in the Student Centre, which he characterized as “not the most healthy.”
Beyene added that he is “surprised” that the Student Centre predominantly offers fast food options: “I would have imagined the Student Centre being an area where students can have more access to healthier food options… that are oriented to supporting the health of students.”
In an email to The Varsity, SCSU Vice-President Operations Mathooshan Manoharan wrote that the SCSU chooses vendors at the Student Centre based on student feedback gathered from surveys. “SCSU’s policy is to seek student input when bringing in new vendors,” he wrote.
Manoharan explained that Subway and Asian Gourmet have maintained contracts with the SCSU since 2004. Hero Burger and KFC replaced A&W in 2011. At the time, the SCSU sent a survey out to all students, which relayed that students wanted a food provider offering burgers and fried chicken to replace A&W.
Manoharan added that the SCSU subsidizes the cost of meals at the SCSU-run restaurant 1265 Bistro.
Catering to dietary needs
Access to healthy, satiating, and affordable food may be even more limited for those with dietary needs.
Hiba Alhuttam — vice-president of events with the UTSC Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) — told The Varsity that figuring out what is halal and not halal among the food options on campus can be “confusing.” With this, some of her friends who are Muslim choose to buy vegetarian and non meat options from vendors on campus. These meals, she said, are “not filling” because they typically come in small portions.
A UTSC spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the administration is working to “clearly mark” the halal and kosher options on campus. They also clarified that all chicken and beef in the Marketplace are certified halal.
Aal-e-Mohammed Gilani — an executive with the Thaqalayn Muslim Association (TMA) at UTSC — also said that he and his friends choose which food to buy on campus based on what is the cheapest. He said that he and his friends share meals at times.
Both Gilani and Alhuttam shared their concerns with The Varsity over the permanent closure of Nasir’s Gourmet Hot Dog — a food stand outside the Student Centre that had served UTSC students from 2007 to 2021. Everything on Nasir’s menu was halal and under $10, with all of its hotdogs in the $4.50 to $6.50 range.
The MSA — in collaboration with the TMA and the Pakistani Students’ Association UTSC — is now circulating a petition, which calls for Nasir’s to be brought back to UTSC. The petition argues that the food provider’s return would be one way to address the “limited” and “overly priced” food options on campus.
According to the spokesperson, the Marketplace will soon open a “new gourmet hotdog station [that] will offer halal beef and chicken hotdogs as well as vegetable hotdogs, all under $5.”
Bringing in local food and vendors
Beyene sits on the UTSC Food User Committee, which meets twice each semester to discuss policies and operations relating to food services at UTSC. There, he has advocated for increasing the number of local food vendors on campus and sourcing ingredients from local farmers and providers.
“We are also providing an opportunity for local food vendors to come to campus and showcase their food. The Marketplace currently features Alejandro’s [sic], a fusion of Middle Eastern/Mexican cuisine. In May we will welcome a Local African food vendor,” wrote the UTSC spokesperson.
Grewal also wants to see more local food vendors at the 750-bed residence building that will open at UTSC in fall 2023. “With all the money that’s being put into this new residence building, I sincerely hope that the university takes the opportunity to support local businesses,” he said. “We don’t need multibillion-dollar businesses to be feeding our students.”
The UTSC spokesperson wrote that the dining hall at the upcoming residence “will feature an all-you-care-to-eat menu with numerous menu options, including roasted chicken, beef, sushi, pasta, a pho station, salad bar and more.” They added that the menu will include options that will cater to those with diverse dietary needs.