Agora Cafe on track to return next semester with student, faculty support

After a three-day student engagement campaign, Agora Cafe is on track to reopen next semester after closing down at the start of the pandemic.

Agora is a vegan and vegetarian, student-run cafe located in the basement of the H.R. Macmillan Building. A recent Land and Food Systems (LFS) grad Cara LeGault called the cafe the centre of the LFS community. Before the pandemic, she said, the cafe had over 100 volunteers a term, mostly LFS students.

“The cafe area itself served as a place for learning, for community building, for accessible and affordable food options … the biggest thing for us was affordable,” said LeGault.

Agora submitted a reopening plan to the faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) over the summer, and a meeting on November 18 between LFS faculty members and recent graduates still working with Agora established next steps for its reopening. But initially, students were not invited to the meeting.

Between the meeting being set and their invitation to attend, the Agora team began a three-day campaign asking students to write sticky notes to put on the cafe exterior saying what they missed about it.

“That campaign ended up being more about us and reinvigorating our efforts and our work than … needing to convince the faculty. I think the faculty already knew,” said LeGault.

Students were eventually invited to the meeting, in which faculty gave feedback on the reopening proposal the Agora team had written, and both teams agreed on next steps for the Agora team. This includes finalizing a COVID-19 safety plan, meeting with providers and hiring new student executives.

“When we set that meeting there was never any sense of excluding … it was more, how are we going to support this going forward,” said Dr. Kelleen Wiseman, an LFS faculty member on the cafe’s advisory board. “People are very supportive [of Agora] in the faculty.”

Both parties are confident Agora can return soon and with support from the faculty to keep Agora open in future years.

Pandemic changes

When the pandemic hit, the Agora executive team reshaped how the cafe runs, particularly regarding long-term sustainability. The team sought more support from the faculty to keep documents like financial and operations plans for students year-over-year.

“There’s such a short period [for] people that stick around, and these projects take a lot of time because of bureaucracy,” said Legault. “We wanted to lean on the faculty for a little more support … to be able to look at not just this year or last year but several years ago what happened, what worked, what didn't.”

Wiseman echoed LeGault on the importance of the faculty relationship. “I think this is a real opportunity for us to get that long-term sustainability in place and get stronger after this shutdown.”

The Agora team has also been working with UBC organizations outside the faculty to support their reopening. They have been granted money from UBC’s incremental tuition revenue which must be used by March 2022. In total, $45,000 of the tuition revenue has been allocated to projects administered by UBC’s Food Security Initiative to support Agora and Sprouts, another student-run cafe on campus which has used their money to provide free meals and produce.

While no firm date is set for Agora’s reopening yet, LeGault says the cafe should be ready to open and use the funding next semester.

“If to use it up, we need to be giving away free food every day, we’re totally fine with that.”