Eat Like You Give a Damn

Walk into the University of Winnipeg cafeteria and you’ll see the words Eat Like You Give a Damn in gigantic letters on the windows. “A university is a place where you teach people to think. We want them to start thinking about the food choices they make.” Kirsten Godbout explains a campaign designed to educate students about the politics of food. “We want them to give a damn about who grows their food, who prepares and serves it, and how it’s made.”

Godbout is the executive manager of operations for Diversity Foods, which was launched in 2009 after the food services at the University of Winnipeg were described as “dismal” in the Macleans magazine annual survey of Canadian campuses. University president Dr. Lloyd Axworthy was determined to do something to change that evaluation, and so Diversity Foods was born. It was started as a joint venture between the University of Winnipeg Renewal Corporation (UWRC) and SEED Winnipeg (Supporting Employment and Economic Development), a non-profit agency dedicated to helping combat inner city poverty through business training and development. Diversity’s mandate is to serve affordable, nutritious, locally sourced, organic, multi-ethnic food; and to provide job opportunities for new Canadians and Aboriginal people.

I visited Pangea’s Kitchen, one of the four main sites where students can purchase food on campus. It was seven in the morning, but Godbout was already in full swing, greeting staff, chatting with them about their families and the workday ahead. The kitchen reminded me of my grandmothers’. A huge pot of stock was simmering for soup. Jars of homemade jam, pickles, and sauces lined the pantry shelves. Potatoes delivered fresh from Manitoba farms had already been cut into fries and put into the fridge. You could smell bread baking. “We have whole pigs delivered, heads and all, from local producers, and we cut them up here,” said Godbout. Pointing to piles of rhubarb, she said they’d be turned into jam and desserts. “We make almost everything we serve from scratch. That way we know what’s in our food: no preservatives, no MSG or loads of hidden salt.”

As we moved through the kitchen Godbout introduced her staff. “We’ve had people from twenty-seven different countries work for us, and at any given time between seven and fifteen percent of our staff are Aboriginal.” I meet a young woman, Paw Moo, whose family is originally from Myanmar. She makes soups, sauces, and salad dressings. Julio from El Salvador cuts up vegetables. Ahmed is from Afghanistan and came to Winnipeg via a refugee camp in Iran. He washes dishes. I’m greeted by Marissa from the Philippines and Lily from Ethiopia. “I helped deliver Lily’s baby,” says Godbout, pulling up pictures of the child on her phone to show me; and then she talks about two other valued employees, Marlene from Congo and Parvinder from India.

“Samy came to us from Haiti.” Godbout puts an arm around a tall young man who says he’s working on a degree in business. “The university paid tuition and room and board for five students to study here after the earthquake,” Godbout explains. “Samy unpacks our deliveries and keeps track of the paperwork. He’s part of the family for Christmas dinner at my house.”

Under the expert direction of Executive Chef Ben Kramer, the Diversity Foods staff learns to make everything from scratch using fresh ingredients. Godbout says this provides employees with excellent training in food preparation that stands them in good stead when they apply for other jobs in the industry. She encourages her workers to move elsewhere after a time, since her kitchen can’t provide everyone with full-time jobs year-round due to the reduced student population on campus during the spring and summer sessions. “The problem is, people like working here. We’re a family, and sometimes it’s hard to convince workers to apply elsewhere.”

We sit down at a table in the cafeteria to have a cup of coffee, but not before Godbout checks to be sure our interview won’t bother a half-dozen early birds doing school work in the dining room before breakfast. “We want to cultivate a homey feel in the dining room,” she says. “The university president Dr. Axworthy wants a sense of community in our eating areas.” Godbout tells me they serve Thanksgiving dinner to the international students who are residents at McFeetors Hall dormitory. They make chili for Grey Cup and have a pulled-pork barbecue in spring. “I’ve brought soup up to kids’ rooms when they are sick. It’s awful when you get sick in the dorm for the first time and your mom isn’t around,” says Godbout, who has four children of her own, two of whom are University of Winnipeg students.

It’s hard to interview Godbout because we keep being interrupted by staff and students. I meet James, who’s in his third year in the Kinesiology program. “I like eating here because I want to know where my food comes from and there are plenty of new things to sample. What they offer is different from what you can get at local restaurants.”

Godbout tells me they serve a variety of ethnic foods from different countries. They have a stir-fry bar where long lists of sauces, starches, meats, and vegetables allow students to custom order the kind of meal they like, whether it’s Korean, Italian, or Indian. “We encourage students to give suggestions,” says Godbout. “They told us they needed comfort food like perogies and lasagna during exam week, and some Asian students requested we add rice noodles to our stir-fry bar, so we did.”

She spots Derryl Reid and calls him over for an introduction. Reid runs GreenBean Coffee Imports and supplies the university with coffee. He buys the beans from a family farm cooperative in Bolivia. He has visited South America and personally met the people who supply his coffee beans. Reid and his daughter Alix roast and package the beans in his micro-roastery in Clandeboye, Manitoba. Godbout says Reid is a good example of the more than 130 Manitoba producers who sell the university their organic and fair-trade products. “It takes longer for us to source ingredients locally, but it is part of our commitment to Manitoba entrepreneurs and the Manitoba economy,” she says.

The next person who stops to say good morning is Ian Vickers, the chief operating officer of Diversity Foods. He proudly points out that my coffee cup is made from biodegradable material, as is every chopstick, lid, and food container used on campus. Godbout shows me the specially marked recycling bins that encourage students to throw away waste in a way that will make it possible to compost, reuse, or recycle it.

I’m curious about Godbout’s background, and she tells me that before coming to work for Diversity Foods both she and Ben Kramer were operating Winnipeg businesses that were already using many of the same principles as Diversity. Godbout was at Bread and Circuses and Kramer at the Dandelion Eatery. Why would they leave to come to the university? “We were preaching to the choir in our former jobs. Our customers were people who appreciated fresh, organic food made from local ingredients. Here at the university we have a chance to educate and dialogue with a more diverse clientele and prove you can serve this kind of food on a much larger scale.” The Eat Like You Give a Damn campaign is one way of trying to spark dialogue and provide education for the staff, students, and members of the public who eat at the university. Members of the public are welcome at all four Diversity Foods locations, but the easiest one to access is probably Elements restaurant, located at 599 Portage Avenue.

Diversity Foods is getting its message out in every way possible, from ads in the university newspaper to conversations with students, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and contests. “Young people are addicted to social media and it’s how things get status and credibility with them. We know that,” says Godbout. “Our Executive Chef Ben Kramer has more than a thousand Twitter followers.”

Godbout is of Mennonite background and was raised on the food of two Mennonite grandmothers and a Mennonite mother who gardened, canned, cooked, and baked from scratch. She points out that Aron Epp, head chef of the university’s signature restaurant Elements, Lydia Warkentin, a UWRC board member who championed the Diversity Foods idea, and Naomi Goertzen, a former assistant manager, are all from Mennonite families. I ask if that’s just a coincidence. Godbout doesn’t think so. “Mennonites have this tradition of hospitality around food. Aron and Naomi’s families served overseas with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and I did a Serving and Learning Together (SALT) assignment with MCC after high school. Through MCC, Mennonites have extended the hand of friendship and built community internationally. Those are some of the same values we are trying to promote here.”

Those values are clear in the kinds of ventures Diversity Foods supports in the community. Chef Kramer, Operating Officer Vickers, and Godbout have all been part of the CEO Sleepout that raises funds and awareness for the homeless of Winnipeg. They’ve catered Grazing in the Field, a Manitoba farm-to-table event, and donated their services to the Hundred-Mile Dinner in support of Winnipeg’s Boys and Girls Clubs. They will participate in Baconfest, a United Way fundraiser, and are providing catering for the residential-school hearings as well as food services for the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre.

During orientation week they invited food-truck operators from all over the city to set up on campus. I asked Godbout if that wasn’t just encouraging competition for their services. She has a different perspective. “The food trucks are almost all run by Winnipeg entrepreneurs, and they serve unique items. It’s all part of getting our students to think local and think diverse food options.”

Expanding their catering services is one way Godbout says they are trying to become more sustainable and provide employment to staff even when the university has a much smaller student population in summer. They cater dinners at Government House, art-gallery openings, theatre openings, weddings, and conferences. The ethical way they prepare and source their food is helping them gain a positive reputation in the catering world; it is also no doubt why they were one of the two finalists in a bid to be the provider of food services at the new Human Rights Museum—a bid they lost to The Inn at the Forks.

This year Diversity Foods will have tripled their sales from what they were in 2009. Profits are returned to the employees by way of benefits, including a health plan started after the first year of operations. Godbout will be the first to admit that their way of doing business is challenging. “There are hurdles every day and lots of juggling to be done. But we aren’t the kind of organization that gives up on people or our ideals.”

And other universities are taking note of Diversity Foods’ determination and success. “We’ve been approached by campuses from across Canada about how we do things and even had visitors from a Japanese university come to check us out,” says Godbout.

The politics of food is something Godbout is passionate about, and she’d like to see the government of Manitoba adopt the Diversity Foods model for its nursing homes, prisons, and hospitals. “Just think of what a difference it might make to the health and well-being of the residents of these facilities if they were being fed food grown organically here in Manitoba and prepared on-site from scratch.” Of course there would also be enormous benefits for local food producers if that were to happen. The Manitoba government is one of the largest food-dollar spenders in the province. “What if they were to commit their food dollars to healthy, organic, local food?” Godbout asks. “Some people think the only feasible option in institutions is serving processed food. We’re proving that’s not true.”

Eat Like You Give a Damn is a campaign designed to get members of the University of Winnipeg community talking and thinking about the food choices they make every day, but its mantra has value beyond the campus confines. “I know this sounds corny,” says Godbout as our interview ends, “but eating good food is part of being a good citizen. We all need to eat like we give a damn.”