The unaccountable university retail food services

In rants, Uncategorized on July 30, 2013 at 12:21 pm

In the summer, at the university where I work, all food services are strictly limited. They close the one smaller food service location, and drive everyone to the premium “Market style” cafeteria.

This would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that food at the Market is hyper inflated in price, very labour intensive, and the selection remains limited and generally unhealthy.

For example. Today I went to the market for lunch. I don’t do this often because of the aforementioned issues I have with it, but today I did.  I went to the “grill” and asked what the vegetarian option was today. Usually there is some veggie pasta or something.  I was looking at piles of chicken breasts and potatoes and was told “we have veggie burgers.”  I went to the pizza.

They do have cheesy pizza, so if I wanted the un-healthiest meal on campus, I could have that.  they have a (shake er salad, where you put a bunch of veggies in a cup, cover it, shake it up and call it a meal, so that’s kind of healthy).

I could have had a sandwich, but since they’re one price suits all, this means a sandwich with a few slices of cheese and all the veggies you want costs the same as one with roast beef, cheese and aforementioned veggies. so I’m getting ripped off there (not to mention the last time I did that the kaiser roll was dry and disgusting).  Oh, and they used to serve sandwiches with potato chips, but have removed that option while (I believe) charging the same (you can get some chips for another 99 cents).

So I ended up at the stir fry kiosk.  Note, this is the sort of place where, I think (because there is no signage telling you what’s going on,another gripe) you pick all your veggies, put them in a bowl, the person stir fries them on a grill, puts them on a plate and hands them to you.  You’ve seen the concept in shopping mall food courts.  Today she had something special, a pre-made goop of veggies “in sauce” (some kind of corn starch and sugar glaze) that they made in advance so that all the parents and incoming students, on campus for orientation, could be fed.  Ie: not even the freshness or quality or customization of the regular scheme.  Disheartened but hungry, I got the goop on rice then looked for a carton of milk.  The only milk was 500ml (a pint+) unless I wanted skim.  As if people who want skim milk are the only ones not paying attention to their intake.  Grabbed, reluctantly, a 500ml of milk.

Got to the cash and was shocked to learn that this would cost over $12.  I mean, well over $12.  The stir fry (no tofu, no protein of any kind, pre-made, grey vegetables in goop) was $8.99.  I had $10 in my pocket, ditched the milk, was about to put the food down and walk out (thereby confining that meal to the bin) but was told by the cashier that if I had 15 cents I could get it without the milk. I did.

On my way back to my office, I stopped by the closed for the summer (except when there are a lot of people around) food service location.  They also have a stir fry kiosk, but the difference is this one is a name brand (Teriyaki Experience) who defends they quality of their offerings and sets a price.  The thing is, the price is considerably lower than $8.99, has better choice, and is a more reliable product.  I contacted T.E. once when the cooks, all employees of the food services company or the university, were making a mess of their product–overcooking the protein, throwing off cold veggies, taking no care in the product–and they responded immediately to thank me for looking into this.  They sent me coupons for free meals, and said they’d get on it.  I complained because I knew they’d want to know who is messing up their brand, not to get free stuff.  But they care enough about how their product looks and is perceived, that they took action.

So of course they’re closed in the summer; the most expensive food location gets all the attention.

Students have told me how expensive this is for them, and I don’t mean just one or two.  A meal for over $10 is ridiculous.  And the university is somewhat isolated from other services.  It’s not a downtown campus like the University of Toronto, forced by proximity to compete with other offerings.  Across the road there is a Macdonalds and Tim Hortons, but they are far enough away that the 10 minutes it would take to walk there is prohibitive.

But students don’t feel they have any power, and the student union runs its own food services business, so would be reluctant to champion students at other food services, lest their own be opened up to scrutiny.

I have mentioned my concerns to the powers that be at the university, and have had the “thanks for your comment, let’s meet to talk about it.” But those meetings have yielded nothing substantial.

When I was in grad school, I was on a “retail food services committee” which was essentially a forum for discussing food service delivery and policy, and all stakeholders (undergrads, grads, admin, faculty and management of food services) had a voice. In fact, i was the chair, so I had quite the voice.  At this university, there is no such committee. The catering company gave a big fat $1million donation to the university 10 years ago and gets to do whatever it wants to recoup that money, on the backs of students whose finances are already stretched tight.

I can afford this (when I bring more than $10 to campus) but many students cannot.

This lack of accountability, and arbitrary, clearly rapacious, policy to make as much money as possible at all times of the year is troubling. The catering company has what amounts to a monopoly, a captive audience all year.  Sure, the student union has a food court, but any special ordering, coffee at meetings, special events catering, everything else comes from the monopoly.  The university’s policy protects the monopoly.  In turn, the catering company makes a LOT of money.

In my opinion, the trade off should be good and responsible food services all year long.  Not ripping off students, providing sub standard food, limited choices, and only opportunistic options when there is enough of a critical mass of guests on campus to make it cheap and meet shareholders’ expectations.  This should be FOOD and SERVICE.  It is barely the former, and definitely not the latter.

There is a word for this

In Being canadian, Canadian politics, political stupidity, publishing industry, Uncategorized on November 16, 2012 at 11:25 am

Some very troubling things are happening in our political system; the suppression of freedom of speech in the guise of economic pragmatism is out of control.

Last week, the Canadian Menonnite a journal for, yes, Canadian Mennonites, was informed by the Canada Revenue Agency that it may lose its charitable status if it keeps publishing articles that CRA considers political advocacy, and contrary to the parameters of their charitable status.


The journal published several articles and editorials that the CRA indicated were outside of its charitable mandate.  Among these articles were:

1) An article discussing how Jack Layton’s inspired some young Mennonites to get involved in politics.

2) An article that argued that Vic Toews, a Mennonite who is in the Harper government, has veered from his Mennonite values.

3) An article expressing concern about the omnibus crime bill

In response, the Mennonite journal argues that these are all speaking to their core beliefs, and reflective of broader values.  I guess any religion that doesn’t adhere to the Conservative government’s perspective is engaging in political advocacy.

If discussing any politician’s views, whether celebrating or vilifying them, is considered political advocacy, we’re all screwed.

Now, today I read that reporters in small prairie newspapers are being fired as a result of political pressure.  I direct you to these articles:



These reporters were told their work was biased and to stop publishing negative reports about the government.

Yes, that’s right.  Let’s just check that Charter of Rights and Freedoms… yep, there it is, Part 1 (surprisingly, not yet expunged from the department of Justice’s website, given its radical notions):

Fundamental Freedoms

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

Has anyone read the National Post lately?  Do you remember the Globe and Mail endorsing Harper in the last election?

Do either of these conservative papers get their journalists fired for biased reporting?

The answer is no.

The issue is not about biased reporting, but about reporting and commentary that run counter to the perspective of the national government.

Silencing dissent is a key feature of  authoritarianism regimes.  The governing party using the apparatus of the state to persecute opposing viewpoints. And, I should say, cowardly editors who buckle to what seems like unethical political pressure to affect the reporting of the news.

I cannot say this strongly enough.  This is a terrifying development. You should be very concerned.

So here is some dissenting opinion Mr Harper:

Canada was once considered to be the kind and gentle cousin to the bully USA.

For years we coasted on this reputation.  We sewed Canadian flags in our knapsacks so we’d be treated better than Americans when travelling.  Americans began to sew those flags on their bags, too.

We believed the national myth that we’re “polite” and “friendly” and “nice.”

Believing this national myth, our government began to do things that were anything but.  Recently while in England a friend of mine said point blank “what the fuck is up with your prime minister?  Who does he think he is, going around the world telling people what to do.” I just agreed because it’s true.

Under this government Canada is quickly becoming a pariah state.  Our government has cancelled treaties that we once promoted; we are depleting international development resources, and redirecting what is left to projects that make Canada look good.  Our national research funding agencies (full disclosure: I am an historian funded by one of them) have had their funding priorities redirected to enrich industry and business, and deplete historical, philosophical and humanist research that may, as the fired journalists have done, speak truth to power.

Our government has also repeatedly circumvented parliamentary democracy by introducing a series of omnibus bills to transform radically and irreversibly the kind, gentle state that has taken over a century to build.  Much of this has been done under the guise of the economic emergency that requires quick action.  One of these quick actions has been an order in council to approve the kind of modified trade rules with China that, two decades ago, were so controversial when undertaken with our political friend and trading partner the United States that a federal election was waged ostensibly about the Free Trade Agreement.  (The Tories won, by the way).  This time: no need to discuss such a major treaty?  Economic emergency?  Give me a break.

Meanwhile, the government takes the low road.  Over three years before the next federal election, it is airing political ads to assassinate the character of the leader of the opposition.  It’s unbelievable, but it’s true.  The election cycle is perpetual for these people.  They don’t even pretend to be nice, kind, gentle.

The Harper government shows no interest in respecting opposing voices.  Knowing it has a weak case, it resorts to personal and political attacks rather than working in a way that honours our democracy and seeks constructive solutions to complex issues. It dismisses as petty or inconsequential any entreaties to debate.  It prorogues parliament when it won’t get its way.  It reduces the number of days parliament sits, shuts down debate on complex bills when in committee, and shows an utter and reprehensible disdain for the basic principle of parliamentary democracy.

To this government, dissent is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, we look south and see a political system we think is broken.

Canadians, get your heads out of your asses.  The myth is shattered.  ours is a broken system, our government is losing respect internationally, and the idea of the compassionate Canada is nothing more than a relic of the past.

Pay careful attention to what is going on at the seat of power.

Question everything our exulted leader tells you.

Speak up.

And be very afraid.

PS What’s really telling is that I am afraid to post this.  So the silencing of the police state is working.

The perils of train travel in Britain

In London, travel, UK on July 23, 2012 at 9:41 am

I just got back from yet another great trip to Great Britain.  I have explained to friends there how wonderful the train system is, mostly from a cost and getting from point A to point B perspective.

But there is a hitch, if you pardon the railway pun.  The train systems will do everything in their power to stop you from getting a refund if things go awry.

Case in point: Southeastern Railway.

I had initially planned to go to Canterbury to stay with a friend when I arrived in London, but changed that to go to Bristol. The Canterbury bound train was about £32.  When I found out that I had to change it, I searched with no luck for any information on Refunding my ticket.

Searching “Refund” on the southeastern site revealed a bunch of links none of which got me any closer to a refund.  Many, however, included information on refunds that said: the following:

If you click any of these, there is no “Refund” link.  Clicking, for example, the FAQ, leads to a bunch of questions that may relate to refunds.  But clicking on any of them, you get the same info:

Present your ticket at a ticket office and we will refund it.

(also note that there is no “How do I apply for a refund” FAQ, even though I imagine that is the most frequently asked question!)

Ok, so now we hear that you need to go to a ticket office.

Fair enough. I did this while in Canterbury and was told that since I bought it on line, I needed to get the refund on line using some online form. I absolutely could not get a refund at the ticket office!

We now have a circular argument, fueled by misinformation. I have not been able to find any online refund form.

Fortunately, I was still in the UK, so called the main office. After sitting on the phone for too long, I spoke to someone who told me the following:

1) There is no on-line form, I just need to send relevant material using this online feedback letter

2) There is no limit on the refund time (no 28 day grace period).

I sent an email asking about this, and got another

Today I received another automatic message, saying the same fricking thing:

  • Log into your account at.

  • Click on “Apply for a Refund” and follow the instructions.

Note: there is no “Apply for a Refund” link anywhere on the site.

All of this confirms what I suspected: they are doing their best to make it as difficult as possible to get a refund.  A few £ here and there can really add up.

So when you’re travelling to the UK, no matter what you do, make sure that you have your plans set before booking your tickets.