British Columbia has institutionalized something college and university chefs across Canada have long known: that is, the thousands of students, staff and faculty fed every day in these mini-cities hunger for local food meals.
And given the chance, they’d love to eat more of it.
So now, a government-led initiative called Feed BC is launching partnerships with nine post-secondary institutions throughout the province to beef up their homegrown component.
The idea is to enhance food security on campus – a lesson learned from the pandemic -- and give local producers better access to an important, vibrant market.
If all goes as planned, local products will constitute a huge part of their total food expenditures -- the goal is a whopping 30 per cent.
In the past year, college and university chefs’ output has been stymied by the pandemic. But normal consumption is massive, right across the country.
For example, at Hamilton’s busy McMaster University, executive chef Paul Hoag oversees preparation and delivery of 15,000 meals a day. At Western University in London, about 21,000 meals are served daily by executive chef Kristian Crossen and his team.
Many smaller institutions have a 2,000-3,000 meal output, which almost seems petite by comparison…but imagine the infrastructure and precision required to serve that many meals every day. Many of us struggle to figure out dinner just for one every night. In perspective, college and university food services are pretty amazing.
And with the pandemic subsiding, institutional chefs everywhere will be ramping up through the spring and summer to be ready for the fall onslaught of students. That’s a great opportunity for fruit and vegetable growers.
Take BC, for instance. As the Feed BC program notes, growers already provide the University of the Fraser Valley with menu items ranging from bread made in Delta to cranberries from Richmond. Elsewhere, Simon Fraser University now aims for a minimum of 30 per cent B.C. foods, including eggs, poultry, seasonal root vegetables, corn and blueberries.
Ontario colleges and universities connect with growers through their own efforts and with programs such as Foodland Ontario and Taste Real. Educational institution chefs in other provinces do the same.
They’re united through a professional organization called the Canadian Colleges and Universities’ Food Service Association. The University of Guelph’s food procurement manager Mark Kenny is the association’s food procurement liaison.
“A Feed BC-like collaborative program could be supported at colleges and universities right across Canada,” he says. “Every province has a vibrant educational institution community, and so many of the chefs there -- who are leaders in their field and have exceptional pedigrees in their profession -- have already worked hard to establish networks with local providers. We know our customers are eager for local food; we’re eager to provide it.”
To me, a key to this whole effort is the nature of the customer that fruit and vegetables growers have the opportunity to influence.
College and universities are full of people who are present and future opinion leaders. Students are making their own food decisions, some for the first time. This is when they’ll develop food buying habits, such as eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. They’re gaining an appreciation for why they and others should patronize local food.
University of British Columbia sous chef in residence Johnny Bridge told me feeding students is a higher calling.
“The value of what we do is in nurturing the young minds who study here,” he says. “They experience so much, so fast. They need good nutrition to learn and make decisions…we want them enjoying good food.”