OCAD University (OCADU) isn’t your typical Canadian post-secondary institution. Just as the name alludes to, the Ontario College of Art and Design University, located just several blocks from the Meal Exchange national office, is quite an extraordinary campus. With fields of study ranging from Advertising, Photography, Environmental Design, and Printmaking, to name a few, this campus is quite the creative place to be.
However, it's not the artistic aspects, nor the design elements of OCADU that enticed a visit to the campus. It's also not the neighboring Art Gallery of Ontario. What truly sparked an interest in visiting the campus, after over a year of conversation between Meal Exchange and OCADU, hearing about the recently established student-run cafe, That Place on the Second Floor.
Earlier this month, I had the chance to sit down with Maiesha and Shelby, who work together to manage the cafe. Maiesha graduated from the Environmental Design Program at OCADU and works as the Cafe Coordinator at That Place on the Second Floor. When I asked Maiesha about how she ended up in the role, she explained that she had always had a passion for sustainability and environmentalism. Meanwhile, Shelby, who is studying Illustration at OCADU, works as the the Student Union Executive Director of Operations, supporting Maiesha and the rest of the cafe staff in running the place. Shelby and Maiesha were able to provide a great depth of insight on how That Place on the Second Floor was established.
Before the cafe opened up in 2014, there had never been a cafe on campus. Students and faculty had to leave campus in order to grab a bite. Shelby explained that even though students had classes together, it was hard to keep a sense of community maintained on the campus without a common dining area. OCADU is, afterall, a commuter school.
Born out of this need to create a stronger sense of community on campus came the rising interest by the Student Union to open up a student-run cafe. Shelby mentioned that the cafe was a long time coming. Surveys had been circulated throughout the school for several years, asking students what they would like to see happen on campus. Without a doubt the number one suggestion was that students wanted to see a student run cafe.
Maiesha explained that on top of being a cafe by students, for students, the cafe is also focused on sourcing locally and sustainably. The pastries served at the cafe are handmade by a local Toronto bakery. It was a priority for the cafe to support local business as part of its sustainability goals. Additionally, the cafe serves fairtrade Canadian coffee, and uses a local food distribution service for stock and produce.
According to Maiesha and Shelby, the biggest impact That Place on the Second Floor has the had at OCADU was creating the opportunity to carve out a place for students to hang out, socialize, interact and build a sense of community on campus. This was really important, the two explained, as OCADU is a place where students can come together and share ideas, problem solve and become leaders together. With the cafe, students feel more welcomed on campus, having a space to mingle in-between and after classes.
OCAD University has a variety of programming that tackles food access and sustainability. There is the campus food bank, called The Starving Artist Pantry. But, what Maiesha and Shelby expressed was one of their favorite campus programs was the Hot Lunch Program, which served a pay-what-you-can meal on Thursdays. Currently, the program sees about 80 students attending every Thursday. It's important to note that this program both creates a space for community and conversation to take place, while also providing support for students who face financial strain.
When I asked Maiesha and Shelby what their biggest recommendations would be for other campuses looking to start a student-run cafe, they said that
1. You must be patient with the bureaucratic process. Mistakes will happen and things will take time. But it will all be worth it in the end.
2. You need to have administrative and faculty support. You can’t do it alone. If it is a campus community you want to serve, then it is a campus community you need support from.
I left That Place on the Second Floor munching on the best banana chocolate muffin, sipping the tastiest Canadian coffee, and excited about the amazing strides OCADU is taking in order to create a safe, welcoming and accessible campus for students.