I could talk to you about the 94 per cent of residents who do not want this meal plan, or how this meal plan makes residence even more unaffordable for students, or that this meal plan is a cookie-cutter plan not catered enough to the very real needs of Lister residents. But you know all that. I want to talk to you about something often overlooked when talking about the meal plan: community and trust.
For those of you who don’t know, under the current meal plan, Lister residents can currently eat wherever they want no matter where they get their food. If you want something from the cafeteria, you get it and you can eat it wherever. This means that although there is seating in the cafeteria, a large number of people do not eat in the cafeteria and bring food back to their floors’ lounges, which are more intimate and more conducive to meaningful conversations than the very public cafeteria. With the new meal plan, this changes. All meals from the cafeteria would need to be consumed in the cafeteria.
If you’re not from Lister, then this probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but floors are like families, and families eat together, in private, to create meaningful relationships and community with each other. That community is what makes Lister such an engaging and meaningful place to live. Without it, it has nothing.
When first-year residents first move into this community, they know no one and they are alone. They get to know names and backgrounds through orientation programs like Basecamp, but they get to know people around the lounge table. You might think that a cafeteria table will do the job just fine, but it doesn’t. It’s really hard to be vulnerable in public surrounded by a thousand other people.
While sharing a meal around a Lister lounge table, I have had conversations that have changed my life and made me who I am today. I have had friends come out to me as gay, and I have had friends tell me that they were thinking of killing themselves. None of these conversations would have happened without being able to share a meal around a Lister lounge table. There’s an intimacy about sharing a meal around this table that tears down barriers and builds communities. This proposed meal plan moves those conversations into the limelight, where they would not happen.
The community is the only competitive advantage that residence has over the greater Edmonton housing market because we obviously can’t compete on price if we’re looking at a 4 per cent across-the-board increase. If we want more residents to live on campus in university-owned housing, and I hope that we do, dismantling key aspects of that community is not the way to do it.
In addition, the University of Alberta’s dining services and Aramark have continually let down residents to the point that there is no trust or goodwill for them to implement a new meal plan on a whim. This year, meal plan funds were restricted mostly in Peter Lougheed Hall so that there would be more funds to improve food quality and service, as well as to ease the transition to an anytime dining meal plan next year. This experiment has been a colossal failure because no improvements to service or food quality have been made. Items are still systematically mispriced in the Lister Marina, food is constantly cooked either too much or too little, and it is too hard to find a meal that actually follows Canada’s food guide. These are concerns that have been brought up year after year and are addressable under the current meal plan, but they are neglected time and again. Lister residents cannot trust an organization with sweeping change when it cannot get the small things right.
Until a time where this meal plan proposal is no longer a cookie-cutter solution that does not fit the needs of a community as diverse as Lister is, nor solves the underlying issues of the current meal plan, nor has a tangible plan on how Lister residents can trust and hold Dining Services accountable for the quality of food, I will urge the Board of Governors to vote against it.
So please, this isn’t just some building. This is my home and I hope it’s one to so many more people.