Diverse Dining: Who is Campus Food Catering For? By Isabella Gillard

When I first walked into the Audrey Taylor dining hall at New College the cluttered layout felt overwhelming. There was no designated route and students can enter from Wetmore or Wilson Hall depending on their residence. The space felt crowded, and students were lining up for stations around corners so I couldn’t see the options without craning my neck or shuffling awkwardly to the front of the line. When I walked in from Wilson Hall, the first station I noticed was the “Pan Station” serving fried rice, which could be customized with scrambled eggs, chicken, tofu, green onions, and a variety of condiments. The line went up the stairs and was predominantly filled with Chinese students. When I returned to the dining hall another time the pan station was serving “Spanish rice”, which appeared to be less popular as I observed some Chinese students, after investigating the other options, returned dejectedly to the pan station to try what they commented was “strange-looking” rice. 

The first time I entered the dining hall from Wetmore, my gaze was drawn to the “Pop-Up Station” that was empty at the time but the chef behind the glass told me would be filled with Korean bibimbap for dinner later. According to the chef, the pop-up station showcased different cuisines each night ranging from build-your-own tacos to a “Japanese bowl” that could be filled with surimi, tofu, wake or tobiko. Across from this station was a long line of students and after shouldering my way through I stumbled across the main event: the entrée station.1 Steaming in trays were piles of chicken legs slathered in a creamy sauce. I glanced at the label placed in front of the food and it claimed the dish was “Roasted Moroccan Spiced Chicken” marinated in a “Harissa sauce”. Accompanying the chicken legs, were trays of sauteed kale and cinnamon roasted squash, both of which I noted were local vegetables found in North American meals but not necessarily a Moroccan dish. In a prime position, next to the entrees, was the grill station, which boasted Western fast-food options of burgers, fries, and grilled cheese. Through my fieldwork, I noticed that the pop-up and pan stations were not offered on weekends, but the grill station persisted. This meant that the cultural variety of the food drastically reduced on weekends, but the Western default cuisine remained a staple leading me to question, which students are being catered to? 

Figure 1: The entrée station at New College Dining Hall 

Methods & Conceptual Tools

I discovered through my research that my observation regarding the Western nature of the University of Toronto’s dining halls was noticed by many students who often felt disappointed and frustrated by the food offered. International students, in particular, felt the most conflicted when they ate “ethnic food” in dining halls, and I resolved to investigate why the food was causing these feelings. Ethnic food is often defined by those outside of the ethnic group, lumping together distinct ethnic group’s cuisines that are derived from their culture and geographical region into “Mexican” or “Chinese” food. The experiences of these international students challenge the University of Toronto’s claim that food offered across campus “reflect[s] our diverse community” because if the cultural diversity of food truly reflected the student body, then why did many of the students I interviewed feel like they are not welcome on campus?2 According to the university, food plays a crucial role in bringing people together and dining halls are unique because students and staff “dine together like family members”.3 The university strives to make campus feel like home for its members and one way it tries to achieve this is through serving diverse cuisines for their international students. But this performance of diversity through food is not working in the way it claims, as international students I interviewed told me they felt more homesick after eating ethnic food in dining halls. This led to my research question: to what extent does the diversity of campus food make students feel included or excluded within the university community? 

To address this question, I created a new concept called “food diversity”, which I defined as a variety of food options, including both multicultural cuisine and dietary accommodations, that are equal in quality and fulfill the needs and tastes of the diverse student body. For the sake of space, this ethnographic report will focus on the multicultural aspect of food diversity, but I want to acknowledge that dietary needs are an important aspect of many students’ experience of campus food that often interact and exacerbate the issue of multicultural diversity. Most of my research comprised of ten interviews where I asked students to reflect on their experiences with campus food. Our conversations flowed around a range of topics, from the mandatory meal plan to misleading ethnic food labels, but my focus was identifying how these students felt when they interacted with campus food. My research was also informed by fieldwork and participant observation at the New College and Chestnut dining halls, as well as gathering anonymous feedback on the online forum of Reddit. My research paid particular attention to affect, specifically to the connection between the emotions triggered by food and feelings of inclusion on campus. In other words, I wanted to know: how do emotions such as contentment or dissatisfaction with campus food impact students’ experience of the university space, as mediated by feelings of belonging? 

I noticed throughout my interviews that food is overlooked by many students, to the point where most began their interviews claiming they did not feel very strongly about campus food because, at the end of the day, it was edible and convenient, which suited their student needs. However, throughout the interview, many of these students became impassioned and indignant about the quality and misrepresentation of ethnic dishes pervasive in dining halls. This transformation prompted me to utilize Sara Ahmed’s concept of “stranger making” because it explained why many students became complacent regarding campus food4. Ahmed proposes that institutions construct certain bodies as strangers so that those who are the norm feel more at home. I argue that many of these students, regardless of the diversity of their needs, to avoid feeling like a stranger conformed to the normative student expected by the institution to accept the mediocre food and not question the Westernized versions of cuisines just because they were students, and college students are meant to eat badly, right? As a result, the issue of food diversity is perpetuated as an individual responsibility instead of a structural issue, to the point where any students who struggled with food feel like a stranger because they are outside of the norm. As one interviewee Asha admitted to me: 

“I didn’t think it was an issue with diversity but an issue with me.” 

“Celebrating” Diversity through Food 

When you think of food diversity what may come to mind is multicultural diversity, manifested as tangy and fragrant ethnic food representing a medley of cuisines and nations. This is a common connection because the face of diversity is often food due to its ability to embody an entire culture with just one bite. One common example is the popular multicultural fair in schools, where international students can bring food they’ve cooked or baked with love at home, which enables them to share their culture with their peers. When I interviewed Viv, she told me how she took great pride in her culture and sharing Caribbean food with her friends allowed her to celebrate her cultural roots. Food symbolizes home and belonging; therefore, they are powerful catalysts of affect. 

The mission of UofT Food Services is that campus food is a “celebration of food to reflect our diverse community.”5 The university boasts a diverse student body of 24,691 international students from 164 countries, a significant component of the total population of 95,055 students across the three campuses.6 This message of food diversity was corroborated by a dietician employed by Food Services, which became a self-operating company for New College, Chestnut and Campus-One dining halls in August 2016.7 The dietician claimed these dining halls serve many different cuisines, which she promptly began to list before trailing off thereby suggesting that every cuisine you can think of is offered. However, Melia, who is Egyptian, rarely sees any Middle Eastern cuisine served on campus that isn’t lumped into Mediterranean or Greek food. Hence her request that the university stop “reducing my culture to falafels.” Chef James Pigott, head chef at New College, when interviewed by a student journalist claimed that he designed the menus to be diverse for not only dietary restrictions but “cultural representation and preferences” because 65% of students living in New College residences are international students.8 Chef James stated that “we want to offer something for everyone.”9 However, according to the UofT tour script provided by the guide Nadia, the cultural variety of dining halls is not addressed, suggesting that the primary focus is conveying the logistics of the meal plan and dietary accommodations. These mixed messages lead me to question: how much effort is the university putting into serving culturally diverse food? And how successful is the institution at making their diverse international students feel at home when studying abroad? 

A common theme that arose from my interviews was a discrepancy between the campus food presented and labelled as ethnic food and the original dish. Nadia confided to me that the “Indian food” (which she put air quotes around) served in the Victoria college dining hall wasn’t “real”: the butter chicken curry was watery and an alarming orange colour that tasted like a “microwaveable meal.” In a similar sentiment, Helen told me she quickly realized in her first year that the Chinese food in the New College dining hall was “fake” and if she wanted authentic Chinese food she would need to trek to Chinatown. Viv informed me that the ethnic food failed to live up to her expectations and that of her international friends because they were “watered down versions” of the real deal. In other words, “Westernized versions” were bland because they did not utilize the necessary spices and ingredients to recreate the original dish. Melia put it succinctly when she said campus catering companies were “trying to cook food from other cultures by using white ingredients.” Applying Sara Ahmed’s concept of “digestible difference” I argue that these Westernized versions of cultural dishes represent a stripped version of diversity that is more palatable to white students, who may not have been exposed to ethnic food before.10 This reveals a normative student who is catered to by the institution, and both the institution and this white student can only stomach so much difference before it becomes “indigestible.”11 In other words, diversity is delicious and exciting but if it becomes too spicy then it must be watered down to suit a white palate, even if this sacrifices the authenticity. 

The institution claims they are making international students feel at home on campus by “celebrating” their culture’s cuisines, however, the dishes prepared are Westernized so how does this make international students feel? Viv recalled how excited she was in her first year when she read that Caribbean jerk chicken was being served at Burwash, but when she showed up at the dining hall she was shocked by the “Canadian version” being offered because it was so different from what she was used to at home. The chicken was dry, the bland rice inundated with unsalted black beans and the plantain ashy and congealed in the tray. Once she recovered from her initial shock, Viv knew what to expect whenever Caribbean day came around at the dining hall, and she quickly adapted to eating the Westernized version. In contrast, Angelina told me she was so disappointed by the Filipino Adobo chicken served that she refused to eat it after that first time. She admitted that she got her hopes up when she saw it on the menu, especially because she was missing home, but when she tried it and it didn’t taste like what she knew she felt even more sad and homesick than before. She confided to me that it “feels like they’re trying but how hard is it to get proper seasoning?” Viv commented that it felt like the attempts were “half-hearted” and an example of “pandering”, where the institution 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.” For Melia, this tone was offensive and not just because the food was unappetizing but because “they weren’t really trying” and yet the institution continues to “label themselves as diverse,” which felt hypocritical to her. The institution appears to put minimal effort into cooking authentic cultural dishes, and this lack of effort comes across as offensive to many international students who feel like their culture is not worth the effort of being properly included. 

Consumer Multiculturalism 

“Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” – bell hooks12 

For many international students or even domestic students such as Nadia who come from diverse backgrounds, dining hall food fails to reflect their diversity in a meaningful way. Instead, the lacklustre attempts at culturally diverse food reflect the institution’s commitment to making students feel included. As Nadia lamented, the lack of effort in the dining hall reflects the institution’s surface-level commitment to diversity. I argue that the institution does commit to food diversity but a commodified version of diversity, constrained by the nature of a dining hall that must accommodate hundreds of students. At the Audrey Taylor dining hall, 1,750 to 2,100 individual meals are served in one day.13 The dietician told me it was unrealistic for students to expect dining hall food to be “like their mum’s food” because it is “very hard to please” everyone in a setting that is trying to accommodate the masses. For example, dietary needs can interfere with recreating cultural dishes, because removing ingredients that are common allergies may destroy the structure of ethnic food. Viv gave an example of pine nut paste, an ingredient in Caribbean cooking that is also a common nut allergy and may be removed to be on the safe side. I do not wish to be overly critical of the chefs and dining hall staff who I acknowledge work very hard to accommodate as many students as possible with produce and ingredients they can order in bulk. However, when dining halls serve inferior versions of ethnic food because they have been mass-produced, the institution is inadvertently commodifying the culture the ethnic food represents. This explains why the international students I interviewed felt offended because for them it felt like their culture was reduced to a commodity detached from its roots. 

This is best exemplified by the themed nights in dining halls, including Chinese New Year or Diwali. On Victoria University Food Services Instagram, a post from 2018 advertised a “Chinese New Year special lunch and dinner” consisting of Mandarin ginger chicken or tofu with stir fried veggies and steamed rice.14 In the picture, a white female chef is wearing a “Chinese” costume comprised of chopsticks in her hair and a broach with Chinese characters on it. She is smiling, standing next to the stir fry she cooked specially for this holiday. Although the sentiment is positive, this chef likely wanted to create a space for Chinese students to be included, but the way this holiday is celebrated in this setting undermines its significance. The gaudy decorations and Westernized versions of the food send a message that the occasion was created to give white students a taste of Chinese food, as opposed to truly catering for Chinese students. I would argue that special religious holiday such as the Lunar New Year or Diwali are lumped together with more trivial spectacles such as Halloween or Valentine’s Day. This slippage is evident because all of these “themed” events are signalled as “celebrations” with tacky decorations, such as the red paper lantern seen in the photo, and of course “special” food. However, the ethnic food served are often stereotypical dishes such as stir fry for Chinese New Year or butter chicken for Diwali. These staple dishes are presented as a “national dish” representing an entire country but taking into consideration that countries like China and India have diverse dishes that vary across regions, this dish offered at dining halls is nothing more than a white prototype of ethnic food. As Melia states: “it’s a white man’s perspective of cultural food.” 

Figure 2: Instagram Advertisement of Chinese New Year by Victoria Food Services 12

 Instead of functioning as a cultural showcase that educates students on the significance of religious holidays and prompts conversations around the importance of food and culture, the food served during themed nights further reinforces homogenized stereotypes of ethnic food. Nadia describes Diwali in the dining hall as “Indian night”, which is an excuse to serve Indian food without taking the time to explain why this holiday is special for Hindus. For bell hooks, this process of decontextualizing the food of the Other from its cultural and national origins is an example of “consumer cannibalism” because the Other is “consumed and forgotten.”15 The Other in this example are the diverse students the university is trying to include, but instead is made to feel like their culture has been commodified into a spice to “enhance the white palate.”16 As expressed above, many students fear their culture and thus a part of their identity will be reduced to one dish such as falafels for Sara or butter chicken for Nadia. This fear is not unwarranted as food hegemony is rampant in dining halls, as exemplified by a dish in the Victoria dining hall being labelled “oriental vegetables” when they were just beans with soy sauce. This problematic expression of orientalism is summarized by a user on Reddit who commented that the university’s “definition of Chinese food is literally just bok choy.” Dining halls, by commodifying diverse cuisines into a mass-produced meal, reduce them into a Westernized version that misrepresents not only the culture but international students who are Othered and excluded in the process. One of the university websites claims that one goal of dining halls is to “expand your palate…not just your mind,” but in this imagining, which students are being allowed to expand their horizons through exotic food?17 

Conclusion: Finding your Place at the University’s Dining Table 

“Some more than others are given a place at the table, just as some more than others are at home in the body of an institution.” – Sara Ahmed18 

I realized through my research that there is a normative student who feels more comfortable in the dining hall and is satisfied by the food. In other words, they feel at home on campus. These students tend to be white and grew up in Canada or other Western countries, such as Danni or Rebecca who I interviewed. Neither of them had grown up eating ethnic food because they were from small towns in Ontario, therefore they enjoyed the dining hall ethnic food because it was different from what they usually ate at home. At the time they didn’t know what authentic ethnic food was supposed to taste like, so they accepted the dining hall versions as the real deal. It wasn’t until they became friends with international students that they learned the food wasn’t representative, but although this was disconcerting, they continued to eat the Westernized versions because it was tasty without being too spicy. As a white international student from Australia, I must recognize my privilege as a student who was able to enjoy the dining hall food even though my international upbringing meant I was aware the ethnic food presented was problematic. This process of “stranger making” constructed an institutional space through food where white students felt more at home because they were assumed to be the norm and thus their tastes were prioritized and catered for.19 On the other hand, international students like Helen felt like they had to “eat in a Canadian way” to fit in and avoid being the institutional stranger, even though it made her feel more homesick in the process. 

To conclude, I would argue that international students feel excluded by the university institution because their culture is commodified into bland and Westernized versions of authentic dishes that are catered to a normative white student. These students feel like their diversity is valued only to add a touch of spice to white palates instead of being appreciated for the diverse cultures and religions they represent. In that sense, international students themselves do not feel valued or welcomed into the institution because if they were, the dining halls would take the time to cook truly authentic dishes. Thus, the institution is committed to a surface-level diversity that looks colourful and tastes exotic but when you scratch beneath the veneer, the institution is perpetuating troubling stereotypes about ethnic food and homogenizing diverse cultures into a Western imagination of that cuisine. 

My recommendation for the university is to let international students be a part of the conversation and not just through surveys that often lead to trivial changes such as increasing the number of ice cream flavours. Feedback systems, such as New College’s student surveys and house representatives are a good start but due to their anonymous nature, they can easily be ignored by food services who are not held accountable. The dietician described an incident when an Indian student complained about the Indian food offered at New College: asking “why bother making it if it’s not properly done?” Instead of addressing his concerns, the dietician justified her inaction by saying he was “picky” and didn’t like the taste but other students enjoyed the dish, so he was outside of the norm. If she had taken the time to ask the student about his ideas to improve the Indian food, he may have suggested using a certain type of rice or a new spice mix, both of which could be implemented easily. The international students I interviewed had lots of ideas to improve the food, but many felt discouraged because they believed their voice was not valued. Melia even told me that if she gave feedback regarding her discontent she knew “they won’t fix it.” The pessimistic attitude results from years of experiencing the commodification of one’s culture into a Westernized dish appealing only to a white normative student. The institution needs to regain the trust of the diverse students who are institutional strangers who are excluded 15 from the norm. This could include putting more time and resources into cooking proper ethnic food is one way that could help international students feel more included and at home on campus. 

Notes

1 Figure 1.

2 “Our Mission,” Food & Beverage Services, accessed December 18, 2021, https://food-beverage.utoronto.ca 

3 “University of Toronto Food Services Operating Principles,” Ancillary Services, 2012, 

4 Sara Ahmed. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke University Press, 2012), 3. 6 

5 Food & Beverage Services. 

6 “Quick Facts,” University of Toronto, accessed December 17, 2021, https://www.utoronto.ca/about-u-of-t/quick-facts 7 

7 “On the Menu: Behind the Scenes in the New College Cafeteria Kitchen,” Re:New, 2017 

http://renew.newcollege.utoronto.ca/index.php/issue-5-2017-behind-the-scenes-edition/on-the-menu/ 

8 Re: New, 15. 

9 Re: New, 15. 

10 Ahmed, 204. 

11 Ahmed, 204. 

12 bell hooks. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Routledge, 2019), 21. 

13 Re: New, 15. 

14 Figure 2. 

15 hooks, 31. 

16 hooks, 39. 

17 “Dining & Food,” University Life, Accessed November 20, 2021, https://future.utoronto.ca/university life/dining-food/ 13 

18 Ahmed, 43. 

19 Ahmed, 3. 

Bibliography 

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press, 2012. 

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Routledge, 2019. 

“Dining & Food.” University Life. Accessed November 20, 2021. 

“On the Menu: Behind the Scenes in the New College Cafeteria Kitchen.” Re:New, 2017. 

http://renew.newcollege.utoronto.ca/index.php/issue-5-2017-behind-the-scenes-edition/on-the-menu/ 

“Our Mission.” Food & Beverage Services. Accessed December 18, 2021. 

“Quick Facts.” University of Toronto. Accessed December 17, 2021. https://www.utoronto.ca/about-u-of-t/quick-facts

“University of Toronto Food Services Operating Principles.” Ancillary Services, 2012.