Agora Café: the Student-Run Initiative at the Heart of the Faculty
Cara LeGault and Vanessa Yeung
Chances are, if you’ve been a part of the Faculty in the past 15 years, you’re already familiar with Agora Café. But look past the famous granola bars and friendly faces, and this little café is a unique experiment unlike anywhere else on campus.
Nestled in the basement of the H.R. MacMillan building, the space currently occupied by Agora was once operated by UBC Food Services before shuttering in 2004. The following year, students began to turn the vacant space into an entirely student- and volunteer-run café.
“Agora has come a long way since then, and it continues to grow and adapt every year,” says Jessica Liao, a fourth year student in the Food & Nutritional Science Double Major program. Liao and Vanessa Yeung, a first year Dietetics student, have been co-general managers for Agora Café since September 2019. “We are guided by our philosophy to provide affordable, accessible, healthy, local and organic food choices to our community, while training volunteers in food service and business management.”
Sustainability is at the heart of every decision. The café supports local and organic agriculture by purchasing the majority of its produce from the UBC Farm and Orchard Garden, and preserves the produce to use throughout the year. Waste is minimized by redirecting organic matter into compost, and reusable dishware is encouraged. While these measures are now common at most campus food outlets, they have been a staple at Agora since the beginning.
“What allows Agora to shine in a crowded field on campus is the direct and open communication with our community,” added Cara LeGault, a third year student majoring in Sustainable Agriculture & Environment. A volunteer for three years, LeGault is also the café’s Tech and Web Manager. She works closely with the rest of the executive team to position Agora as a resource to alleviate food insecurity on campus.
“We’ve heard from students who worry about the rising cost of food, which is why you can get a complete meal for under five dollars with us. We’ve also adapted to the growing demand for vegetarian and vegan options. Dialogue and the exchange of ideas is not only welcome, but encouraged.”
There are about 100 students who volunteer at the café each term, representing a variety of programs and faculties. “We’re essentially a learning café, as we require no previous experience for new volunteers to join the team,” said Yeung. “Training is provided, and we encourage an environment where people can make mistakes and learn from them.” Volunteers also receive a discounted rate for Foodsafe Level 1, and work a variety of shifts, from prepping food to front counter service.
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the café, as faculty and staff are frequent visitors as well. Which only seems fitting, as the name is inspired by public spaces in ancient Greece used for assemblies and markets.
“Agora is a key player in the Faculty of Land and Food System ecosystem,” says Kelleen Wiseman, the Academic Director for the Master of Food and Resource Economics program, who sits on the Advisory Committee for the café. “They uniquely provide multifaceted contributions in the form of volunteer positions, innovative food offerings and a gathering place for faculty, staff and students – all run by a team of highly organized student executive managers. All of this and the best granola bars too!”
As a not-for-profit café, the volunteers are the beating heart of the operation, and Cody Rector wants to see them succeed. Rector is in the Food & Nutritional Science Double Major program, and is currently the Fundraising Manager for Agora. “We’ve managed to replace some critical equipment in the café this year, which was essential as we want to give the volunteers an experience that resembles a genuine restaurant,” said Rector. “Our next focus will be to secure funds to offer a better training experience, which would be more complete and similar to what is provided in the food industry today.”