Food sustainability initiatives at McGill were scarce until about six years ago. However, with the launch of the student-founded and student-led McGill Food Systems Project (MFSP) in 2008, a culture of food sustainability has experienced a grassroots emergence, with students critically considering and addressing food sustainability issues. Achieving food sustainability at McGill has developed into a two-tier process: Student-initiated research on sustainability is institutionalized by administration to ensure its long-term practice. This innovative process has yielded impressive results, making McGill a leading university in Canadian food sustainability.
McGill’s food sustainability initiative is a product of the MFSP. The MFSP was founded by three students: Dana Lahey, a sociology and anthropology major; Sarah Archibald, an agriculture and environmental science major; and Jonathan Glencross, an environment major, with assistance from McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS), and the McGill Office of Sustainability (MOOS). The project’s goal was to create and implement a vision of food sustainability at McGill. Since its launch, two of the founding members, Lahey and Archibald, have graduated and are now project managers for a Toronto-based not-for-profit called Meal Exchange, which works with 35 universities in Canada to address sustainability issues within campuses.
Ansel Renner, a senior leader of MFSP and U3 Environment student, reflected on the objectives of the project, which works with students to conduct Applied Student Research (ASR) on sustainability.
“[The MFSP] exists to support student food initiatives with sustainability on campus, addressing the environmental, economic, and social components,” he explained.
Since its inception, the MFSP has supported many food sustainability initiatives at McGill. Projects include the first on-campus farmer’s market in Quebec at McGill’s downtown campus, the Farm to Plate Report, which addressed McGill’s food supply chain, monthly Local Food Days in the McGill dining halls, the McGill Feeding McGill partnership with Macdonald Farm to obtain produce for the residence cafeterias, the McGill Food and Dining Greenhouse Gas Audit, and a recent Constructive Consumerism report from student researchers.
Renner and the MFSP team are currently working on a McGill Food Manifesto, which is one of the group’s new student-initiated projects. The official statement’s objective for the manifesto is to “create a baseline understanding between a diverse group of food service providers regarding topics such as responsible and ethical purchasing, common knowledge nutritional information, and vegetarian and vegan options.”
According to Renner, the progress of sustainability that McGill has made since MFSP’s founding is one that has flourished.
“The scene in 2008 was completely different than it is today,” Renner said. “For example, McGill has one of the most expensive dining services, but the quality of the food has really improved and is a resounding conclusion.”
According to Renner, the amount of food wasted in Quebec calls for McGill’s increased involvement in sustainability.
“Quebec is the worst province for food waste in Canada,” he said. “Fifty per cent of food in Montreal is wasted, and most people aren’t aware of that.”
Renner recognized that this new project is more challenging than earlier initiatives.
“The food charter is a bigger undertaking [….] All the low-hanging fruit has been plucked,” he said.
Renner said that he would like to see further growth of food sustainability awareness at McGill.
“I want McGill to continue to be a leader in Canada,” Renner said. “Six years ago, it was like entering a black box, so difficult to figure out where your food comes from [….] Now it’s easier.”
Amelia Brinkerhoff, a fourth-year Environment student, is involved in the institutional aspect of food sustainability at McGill. She works with the MFDS as the Student Sustainability Coordinator. Brinkerhoff got involved with sustainability at McGill to ensure that food sustainability would become a priority and conversation point at McGill.
“After first year, I volunteered with the MFSP in an operational sense,” Brinkerhoff said. “Food sustainability is something I have always felt passionate about, [so I] got involved to continue with that vein.”
Brinkerhoff described why MFDS collaborates with MFSP for food sustainability initiatives.
“[MFDS] works with [MFSP] because they do Applied Student Research,” Brinkerhoff said. “Every sustainable purchasing project is backed by student research.”
Since the release of the student-researched Farm to Plate Report, MFDS has increased its sustainability practices, such as purchasing local ingredients for the residence dining halls.
“Forty per cent of everything we purchase is local [and sustainably, consciously chosen]—that tends to be our maximum right now,” Brinkerhoff explained.
According to its website, the MFDS defines Local Food Days as “purchasing seasonal food that has been produced, harvested, caught, or manufactured within a 500km radium of the downtown campus.”
However, Brinkerhoff said that “local” and “sustainable” are broad terms for the MFDS, with economic sustainability also considered along with environmental sustainability.
“We also strive for holistic financial sustainability and try to support Quebec’s local economy,” she said.
According to Brinkerhoff, working with the Macdonald campus is also important because it is a local food connection and also part of McGill.
“Local purchasing and working with [Macdonald farm] sets us apart,” Brinkerhoff said. “[MFDS] are the biggest purchasers of Mac produce, and we have worked closely with them to expand our relationship to include beef and eggs as well.”
Another current project in McGill’s dining halls is student composting.
“We have composted in the kitchens for three or four years, and have expanded it this Fall to the cafeterias,” Brinkerhoff explained. “Student feedback with composting has been mostly good. [They] are now more aware of what is going in and out.”
According to Brinkerhoff, it is important for universities to engage in sustainability.
“It seems hypocritical for an academic institution to generate research and have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic faculty, yet not engage in sustainability across the board,” she said. “We have an obligation to set an example in all facets of sustainability. Universities should support students in sustainability and sustainability projects—it’s [their duty].”
Despite its room for growth, Brinkerhoff believes McGill is a leader in food sustainability.
“We definitely rank among the top [institutions in food sustainability] in Canada, and have been approached by other universities,” she said. “People are seeing that our student initiatives are being institutionalized.”
For students interested in getting involved in the food sustainability culture at McGill, Renner offered three suggestions.
“First, start questioning what it is that you’re eating, where it came from, and who prepared it,” Renner said. “Also, get involved with the food sustainability culture at McGill. Consider joining the farmer’s market, Organic Campus, or one of the student-run cafes [….] Lastly, see something that you think could be improved.”
Brinkerhoff further recommended that students try the new McGill-oriented sustainability app, “Myko,” which was launched by a team of McGill faculty and students. The application seeks to educate users on sustainability issues, proposes possible solutions, and help establish goals for positive and lasting change.
Gal Kramer, U1 Geography, volunteers at Organic Campus, a Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) service that promotes local and organic food on campus. Kramer also stressed the importance for students to be active in food sustainability.
“Students have both the knowledge and resources to impact food sustainability in our communities,” she said. “This can be achieved through urban farming, a sustainable mindset and local agriculture. It is important because it is all linked to improving public health, and creating healthier societies in general.”