With campus food provider Aramark’s contract expiry date looming, administrators are scrambling to find out what students want to eat and how the university can serve it up on a shrinking budget.

Trent students showed their dissatisfaction by giving Aramark’s food services a “D” grade in the Globe and Mail’s 2011 Canadian Universities Report. Complaints about campus dining range from a lack of local food to limited dining hall hours, Laura Storey, Director of Housing Services, told Arthur.

As the University’s contract with Aramark gets set to expire in 2013 after 15 years, administrators now must put together a request for proposal, detailing what Trent wants from a food services provider. The contract to provide Trent’s food services for the next 10 years will then be opened to the marketplace for bidding.

Storey acknowledged the low level of satisfaction with Aramark’s services among students, adding, “we want to put into process some steps to move forward in the right direction, so helping us with our rankings, but more importantly helping with student satisfaction on campus.”

While Aramark conducts regular surveys to gauge student satisfaction with its services, the University’s review process is less organized. One thing Storey wants to do is work “constant review” of food services into the University’s processes.

“I’m hoping that we can consider a different way of evaluating and assessing what we’re doing in order to help students really get what they’re looking for and getting what they’re paying for,” Storey said.

Feedback from students, faculty, staff, and campus guests is already being sought to help decide what Trent Food Services will look like after 2013. Invitation-only focus groups took place in mid-November, an online survey was released last week, and interviews are to be organized in the near future. Input from the College and Student Services Committee (CASSC) is also being sought.

Exactly what the university is looking for will be determined in the consultation process, Storey said. But she noted that she’s going into the process with two principles in mind: fiscal and environmental sustainability.

Consultant group fsStrategy is being paid $60,000 to conduct the consultations and make recommendations about how to run Trent’s food services.

fsStrategy president Geoff Wilson’s is an “active member” of the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals (CAFP), which counts Aramark as a “platinum sponsor” on its website. Storey does not see this as a conflict of interest. In her view, CAFP is merely “an organization that helps bring [food service professionals] together to help figure out best practices and to have conferences.” CAFP grants Certified Food Executive (CFE) designations. Storey said that no member seeks financial gain from involvement with the organization.

At least one student will sit on a committee that will help draft the request for proposal and evaluate the bids.

Storey could not say whether longstanding complaints about the Aramark contract—such as restrictions on potlucks on campus, limits on where the Seasoned Spoon can cater, and a lack of local food—would be up for consideration. She insisted that consultations with University community members will determine what the “top issues” are and what gets reviewed.

There may be more room under the new contract for a variety of food service providers. Under the current contract, Aramark provides food services in all four campus dining halls. Storey maintained that “no decisions have been made” but that if there was a workable proposal for more than one provider to dish out meals in its dining halls, the University would reserve the right to allow that to happen.

Other Canadian universities like the University of Toronto, Mount Allison University and the University of Winnipeg have made headlines in recent years for providing local food on their campuses. In 2006, Mount Allison University included a local, organic and environmental clause in its request for proposal when it was seeking a new food service provider. Through the life of that University’s contract with Aramark, the local food requirement will slowly increase from an initial 33 per cent to 50 per cent.

Storey said that if Trent wanted to go in that direction, she would like to see it come from University policy. “I would love it if it was the direction of the University that was driving the proposal rather than the proposal driving what we do on campus,” she stated.