The Truth about Food on Campus

Posted by Megan on May 20, 2014

Student Life

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One of the most common complaints I hear about York University is regarding its food selection.

The food at York is too overpriced

Why isn’t there more affordable healthy food available

A GIF of a man holding his wallet giving a bill - a women snatches the wallet leaving the man with the bill.
I imagine this is how those people feel.

It makes me wonder if I’m attending the same university as some of my peers. Or maybe I just choose to see things differently.

At my old university (which I left in 2012 so things could be different) for instance, the only food options were a caf (standard stuff), Tim’s, and a Quizno’s. Imagine my surprise when I discovered York Lanes for the first time – I’d never seen anything like it on a campus. I was even more blown away when I found the Dining Directory and I realized how many food options there were scattered all across campus.

To be fair, I do think my current position should be shared – I lived in res at my old university for one year and then with my partner’s family the other. Since coming to York I’ve lived off campus, just outside the village. I generally meal plan with my partner but we eat out every now and then. I have eaten at some of the places on campus and in the surrounding area but I’m also familiar with the grocery stores near campus and have tons of experience working with a tight budget – $50 for two people for two weeks? No problem. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be in a better financial position where I’ve had $100+ or so to work with each week (again for two people) so I’ve lived on the rougher and more moderate side of things.

I’m not saying that the food options available are perfect or anything, I think there is always room for betterment. However I don’t think the current portrayals I keep reading about and overhearing are accurate either. So in the following sections I’m going to try my best to disprove them. Read on if you like, and let your perceptions be challenged.

Meal Plans

It’s too much money, there isn’t anything to eat except processed stuff

A GIF of Patrick, from Spongebob, vacuuming into his mouth a bunch of Krabby Patties.
You want to eat it like this, but you know it’s not good for you.

York’s meal plans range from a $1600 convenience plan all the way up to a Platinum $4000 plan. Even the MOST expensive plan at York is still cheaper than the lowest plans at my other university (just for perspective). So not only do you get greater flexibility in meal plan choice, but you also are getting a competitive price AND access to 47 eateries on campus.

Now this IS potentially quite a bit more expensive than just making your own food. However, I think there are some other factors that need to be tied in:

1) Your food is prepared for you which saves you a lot of time…and we all know that time is money, especially as a student.

2) You don’t have to get creative with various groceries and ingredients. Unless you are a master meal planner, it can actually be quite tricky to minimize waste.

As for healthy options we have:

  • Berries and Blooms

  • Blumont Bistro

  • Booster Juice

  • Items from Central Square Market

  • Items from Country Style

  • Freshii

  • La Prep

  • Osgoode Bistro

  • Items from Stong Dining Hall

  • Items from TEL Cafe

  • The Great Canadian Bagel

  • Items from the Underground

  • Items from Tim Hortons

  • Items from Tuchner’s

  • Items from Winters Dining Hall

And I’ve visited a number of these so I KNOW there are some cost effective items – I’ll get to that later.  During the school year, we also have the York University Market which is basically a Farmer’s Market located in TEL. Not only do they sell local produce but they also have some meals and snacks available for super reasonable pricing – many of which are uber healthy.

The other point is that if you are a commuter student, you don’t even need a meal plan. You can choose to buy your food on campus, yes, but you can also go the other route and bring food with you. There are plenty of cheap lunch bags available and you can get ice packs at the dollar store that will keep your food fresh for most of the day. I’ve packed a lunch at 7am and the ice pack was still cold at 5pm – that’s enough to pack a lunch AND dinner for those of us that have a seemingly never ending day. Does this mean that you might have to pack a bigger bag? Yes, of course! But again, when you buy food on campus you are paying not just for the food, but for the convenience. You need to weigh your options and see what is the best fit for you. There are also a ton of cost effective meal plans with grocery lists online for interested parties! If you want me to send some your way just comment below and I can do that no problem.

Overpriced food? In what context…

GIF of David Tennant as Doctor Who with an exasperated face.
*snap in Z formation*

I think the most important thing for this section is to note is that food vendors at York set their own prices – York has nothing to do with their menus or the prices the vendors set. On top of that, a lot of these vendors are chains (like Tim Horton’s) and tend to have equal pricing from one location to another. Other places like Shopsy’s have specifically stated that they try to offer “student friendly” prices on our campus, because guess what, they know that us students are on a budget. They aren’t going to make money if they price their product too high.

I also think it’s important to realize that most of the vendor prices are really reasonable for what you get. Sure, you can get a dollar menu burger from Wendy’s… but what about a nicer burger with a meal and in a nicer atmosphere? I think paying $10 for that is completely fair. And it’s certainly something that can’t be afforded by everyone (myself included) on a regular basis, but it’s still nice to have that option for when we can.

The other common comment is about why healthier food on campus is so much more expensive than convenience food – well, that’s how it is off of campus too. A recent study found that healthy food is more expensive, even unaffordable, so for those with less money to spend. And I can speak on this from experience – when my partner and I have more money for groceries (because we are in a more stable financial position) we often eat super healthy. As soon as times get tough, however, it’s right back to simple, convenience type, foods. It’s also not just about the price of food – it’s preparation, how long the food lasts, etc. Now I’ve only linked to one news article, however I’ve actually been following discussions based on this for about a year so if you want more resources to look at, just ask. A great blog, The Exorcist, also often offers researched (with links) critiques to problematic and all too common food myths such as this one (they do great exercise myth busting too).

I also know that there are students out there that rock meal planning and will argue that healthy eating can be affordable until day turns to night. Again, I ask that you consider that not everyone is fortunate enough to be in a situation where that is possible (it’s classist to assume otherwise). Other factors that affect this are:

  • The time of transit to get to the grocery store or farmer’s market and back

  • The cost of that transit (or other transportation)

  • The time it takes to meal plan

  • The time of grocery shopping itself

  • The time it takes to food prep

  • The time of actually cooking that food

  • Family commitments

  • Work commitments – some of us have part time jobs, some of us have more than one, some of us work full time

  • Volunteer commitments

  • Social life – which is a necessary and valid excuse (this helps balance out our academic life and keep our mental health in good shape, which is JUST as important as physical health)

  • Room or access to room to prep and cook, let alone to store the food that you bought

  • Owning or having access to instruments for prepping/cooking

  • Cost of tuition

  • Family or personal financial situation

And I’m sure there are countless others. Now on to the next section.

The Dirty Factor

I just think the quality of some of these places is sub-par

A GIF of Emma Stone saying

While I have yet to personally see any quality or health concerns at any of the eateries on campus, that’s not to say that some don’t exist. However it is my belief that there is a system in place and it is our social responsibility to use that system in order to make these changes that we need to see. Quality and health concerns can happen at any eatery, it’s not a York specific problem. Remember that these vendors are operated independently of York University. They are susceptible to the same factors that affect eateries in the rest of the GTA, and elsewhere.

So what am I suggesting you do if you see a problem? Use your voice! Leave a complaint with an employee or manager. Or if you prefer, the Dining Directory contains contact info for each eatery. The York Lanes website also often provides an email address. There is also a useful page on Toronto’s website called DineSafe. If you don’t want to complain directly to the eatery themselves you can submit a claim right to the city’s inspectors. You can even check the inspection results of any of the eateries on campus!

The Challenge

Can you actually find meals on campus that are $5 or less? There’s not even that many

A GIF of Barney from How I Met Your Mother saying

Oh how wrong you are…

Below you can see the results of hours of research. I first did some preliminary snooping online to see if this was doable. After 2 hours I found roughly 20 meals under $5. From there I visited some of the locations on campus in person and I compiled a list of my favourite meal options, however there are plenty more that are available. A really good option is to order sides and compose a meal that way. They often have sides that fit with each food group! Also eating breakfast type meals for breakfast and/or lunch can save you money so that you have more to work with for dinner 🙂 I also highly recommend bringing a water bottle with you (just buy some flavour packs if you get sick of it fast) so that you don’t have to waste any money on drinks and you can have more for actual food.

M’s Favourite $5-or-less Meals

  • Slow Cooked Organic Oatmeal or Grilled Egg Pockets from Freshii
  • Coffee/Tea and a Bagel of choice from Tim Hortons (I like getting cream cheese and bacon on mine)
  • Any Breakfast Sandwich from Starbucks
  • Epic Garden Burger from TEL Eatery Epic Burger Station
  • Anything from Breakfast Menu at TEL Eatery
  • BLT, Chili Fries, The Works Fries, Classic Poutine, Hamburger, or Triple Decked Grilled Cheese from Seneca Eatery
  • Breakfast Sandwich or Omelettes from Seneca Eatery
  • Cheeseburger or Black Bean Burger from Seneca Eatery
  • Bagel and Drink from Great Canadian Bagel
  • Slice of Pizza from Pizza Pizza
  • Bagels, Soup, Salad, or Sandwiches from Timothy’s in Schulich
  • Breakfast Parfait, Breakfast Sides (Ex 1 egg, fruit, and home fries), or Soup from Shopsy’s
  • Select Sushi from Sakura
  • Anything from Everyday Value Menu or Kid Meals at Popeye’s (including Chicken Tenders, Sandwich, Chicken Pieces, Side, etc. and only $1.25 to add a drink or regular side to the $2.99 2 piece chicken)
  • Healthy Smoothies, Breakfast (not combos), Side Salads, Soup from La Prep
  • Hot Dog from Hero Burger
  • Hotdog from any of the Carts on campus
  • Pitas or Specials from Falafel Hut Village
  • Margherita Pizza from Cucinetta
  • Small Container, reasonably filled, or Sandwiches, Smoothies, Breakfast, etc. from Berries and Blooms (LOTS of options under $5)
  • Value Menu or some solo Sandwiches (not in a combo) from Wendy’s
  • Most options from Treats
  • Small Chef’s Soup from the Underground
  • Select items from Mac’s Sushi
  • Sides from Jimmy the Greek
  • Chicken and Festival Lunch Special, Patty and Coco Bread Lunch Special, Sides from The Islands
  • Select items from Gino’s Pizza
  • Sides, Classic BLIT, 2 Cheese Grilled Cheese, or Mixed Greens Salad from Blumont Bistro

And a bunch of others that I probably missed – particularly from the dining halls and Central Square Market.

Final Thoughts

Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber saying
I hope you learned something new!

Well, this is it. The only final point that I want to add is that if you are having difficulty with food security, don’t forget that Food 4 Thought is an on-campus Food Bank located in room 337 of the Student Centre. Their summer hours are Monday – Thursday, 10 am to 6 pm. All students are welcome to use this service.

I look forward to engaging in discussion over this topic, just please remember to be respectful 🙂


Updated September 2, 2014

Megan is a third-year Psychology student. Follow her on her journey of self-development as she explores and ventures through campus.

See other posts by Megan