On a campus littered with food options, how does a hungry student choose? There are the obvious factors that help us settle the debate between the big name coffee companies on campus and the local joints. Price is a major factor – especially for students – and of course the other usuals like walking distance and food selection. But what about ethics? How many of us, when buying a cup of coffee, think beyond that single cup to ask how was it produced, where was it produced and what kind of impact this caffeine fix is having on the environment?

Fortunately, for those of us looking for a guilt-free cup of coffee and a litterless lunch option between classes – many campuses have cafés tailored to meet the needs of a sustainable student. 

The Environment Student coffee shop at the University of Waterloo is completely student-driven with a commitment to providing uWaterloo students, staff, and faculty with environmentally responsible, locally sourced food. Serving Rainforest Alliance certified coffee – locally roasted in Kitchener – and baked goods from local business like Grainharvest Breadhouse using local and seasonal ingredients, the ES Coffee shop provides students with an environmentally mandated food outlet.

The shop is entirely student-run with 4th year Environment and Resource Studies student Jackie Moore serving as current manager, 3rd year International Development student Darrelle Moffat as assistant manager and about 25 volunteers.

While their official function is to provide quality food and coffee while maintaining a high environmental standard, the current manager sees the coffee shop’s purpose as more of a “practice what we preach” influence. Moore states, “many students [at uWaterloo] study issues surrounding sustainable food systems but so often the food services that are offered do not reflect that.” She adds that there is incredible academic work happening regarding food issues but it is also important to have a physical practice of what sustainability actually looks like – that is where the coffee shop comes in. “Instead of just studying sustainable issues, we should strive to ensure our campuses reflect our academics.”

While the constant flow of students in and out of the shop might make running a sustainable coffee shop seem like a breeze, Moore can attest that there are a lot of challenges. With most of the cliental being on a student budget Moore says the biggest challenge is offering local food that students can afford. Right now, the food selection is about 70% locally sourced, and Moore says she hopes to increase that. But at the end of the day, being not-for-profit and student-operated, the coffee shop must offer affordable food that has a wide appeal – that considered – they’re doing a pretty great job.

Although unique to uWaterloo, the sustainable coffee shop exists on many Canadian campuses. Trent University in Peterborough Ontario is home to The Seasoned Spoon, a vegetarian café, which for the past 10 years has been committed to providing students with healthy local food and educational resources.

The Spoon, as it is affectionately known, is managed by graduates of Trent and operates with 11 student staff and about 40 student volunteers. Current manager Aimee Blyth says there are a lot of leadership learning opportunities for the student staff. Working at The Spoon, Blyth says, provides students with the opportunity to gain valuable hard skills (like food preparation) as well as to raise critical questions about the food system. Much like the ES coffee shop at uWaterloo, The Seasoned Spoon tries to reflect what students are learning in classrooms and allows them to see food sustainability in reality.

Trent University students on a rooftop vegetable garden
Trent University students on the rooftop vegetable garden

The Seasoned Spoon has collaborated with other campus initiatives in order to increase its sustainability. The Spoon partners with the several on-campus vegetable gardens including one on the rooftop of the Environment and Resource Science building, which supplies produce for the café. In order to make local produce available all year round for The Spoon, in 2011 the Endeavour Center built a root cellar on campus. This year, The Spoon is celebrating their 10th anniversary with an all-day event April 6th.

There are many similarities amongst these particular cafes, but one that sets each apart from other campus food outlets is that there are no disposable coffee cups or takeaway containers. Both the ES Coffee Shop and the Seasoned Spoon have never offered disposable coffee cups, and neither have plans to add them in the future. Of course, every student has the option to bring their own reusable mug to any coffee shop on campus but the availability of a disposable option means many don’t. Managers of both sustainable cafes agree that not offering disposable cups or takeaway containers have not lost them customers and, if anything, enhance the businesses.

Sustainable student cafes at other Canadian Universities include: Sprouts at the University of British Columbia, and Bridges Café at McMaster University – a longer list of student food initiatives can be found on the Seasoned Spoon’s website.

Ultimately, all students have a choice to make when looking for a meal on campus, and those with sustainability in mind when choosing a cup of coffee cannot expect everyone to do the same. But it is important that in terms of space and services we do not leave it all up to the administration. Students at these schools take it upon themselves to create spaces that bridge the gap between campus life and classroom lessons.


Megan is A\J's editorial manager, a lover of journalism, and graduate of the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Environment. 


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