Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Questioning Complacency: Why do Students Accept poor food choices on Campus? By Isabella Gillard (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

When I began the interview with Viv, she admitted that she wasn’t sure how helpful she would be because she had “never thought about” food diversity before and she “didn’t really have any issues” with the variety of food on campus. As she settled into the interview Viv began to open up, and she shared with me that she thought the ethnic dishes in the Victoria College dining hall (Burwash) were “Americanized versions” of the real deal. She commented that they tasted like “watered down versions” and mused it could be because Burwash uses the same catering company for different “cultural themed” dinners. She was still hesitant to disclose her full opinion and told me that “her friends” who were international students found the food “offensive” because their cuisine was reduced to a Western version centred around carbs. When I asked her what she thought about the inauthenticity she hedged that “offensive” was a strong term and she didn’t feel that way because she spent half of her childhood in Canada so she was used to Western food. Therefore, her international friends had “stronger feelings” because they hadn’t grown up in Canada. She said she didn’t want to be too critical because she was glad the college had made an effort to broaden their dining beyond Western cuisine and admitted she used to laugh at their attempts at making Caribbean food. However, as the conversation progressed her opinion started to change.

Viv claimed that it felt like the attempt at food diversity was “half-hearted” and an example of “pandering”, where the college does a “big song and dance” about how culturally “inclusive” they are and yet the food is not genuine so it strikes a wrong tone. She reflected on how important it is for her to share Caribbean food and culture with her close friends and the pride she derives from these components of her cultural identity. By the end of the interview, she was passionately telling me about how upset she was to see the college fail to present authentic cultural options, especially since students pay such expensive meal plans. She recalled how excited she was in high school to attend a world-renowned university and eat world class food representing many different cultures. She felt crushed when she first ate the dining hall food because it fell so far below her expectations. Her voice then sounded shocked as she recalled how quickly she accepted the sub-par food. She resentfully said that she “gave in.” She accepted that because she was a student, she was expected to eat crappy food. Voice raising with passion, Viv told me that she rejected the dominant discourse that just because we are students we must “rough it out” and accept lower quality food regardless of how much we pay for a meal plan.

Over the course of the conversation a remarkable change had occurred: Viv had transformed from a complacent zombie who accepted Westernized, mediocre food and had no complaints to an impassioned student who actively rejected the norm of the “UofT student” she had been forced into in first year. As we wrapped up, Viv thanked me profusely for such an enlightening conversation and remarked that she had felt strongly about this topic after all!

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