Today's special? Snacks for one

April 22, 2005

Once, the collegiate lunch was as much about feeding minds as bellies. Now fast food is the only thing on the menu and most dons would rather eat at their desks. Harriet Swain investigates

Amushroom soup that remained in the bowl if you turned it upside down. A plate of beans and chips that looked as if it had been prepared several days before being served. Most academics have had at least one unforgettably bad university meal, and very few unforgettably good ones - unless they have spent time in France.

Nevertheless, few claim to care too much. The state of campus food does not provoke the same passion as school dinners have since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign, for meals no longer play the part they once did in academic life. Gone are the days when everyone indulged in gossip and intellectual argument around Oxbridge college dining tables.

Although some dedicated collegiate types still dine together regularly, most staff and students prefer to grab a sandwich from the local cafe, as do their counterparts in higher education institutions around the country.

According to Steven Ley, professor of organic chemistry at Cambridge University and a keen cook, most academics now eat their finest meals when food at an event has been sponsored by industry or when they are out courting funders -usually at restaurants off campus. Most university chefs have the skills to produce a banquet - the Queen dined on duck mousse, fillet steak and lemon tart during her recent visit to Bristol University - but the sandwich and snack culture has taken over.

Not everyone is happy with the change, especially those who feel that it has been forced on them. Staff at De Montfort University were furious when their staff canteen and bar were shut two years ago in favour of a food court dominated by café-style chains - with burgers the only hot food available - all to be shared with students.

Jen Doy, professor of the history and theory of visual culture at De Montfort, says she cannot entertain visitors or speak to colleagues without the risk of undergraduates overhearing. "There is nowhere on campus we can go to get a bit of peace," she says. "Students are fine, but you do not want someone coming up asking for an essay extension when you are eating."

Now she rarely eats at lunchtime, and just grabs a banana or croissant if she is desperate.

Neil Williamson, De Montfort branch secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, says he used to eat in the staff canteen every day knowing that he was likely to run in to a friend. Now he sticks to sandwiches at his desk.

"It's all bright and modern, but as far as most staff are concerned it does not do the job that the old facilities did," he says. "We have all become a lot more insular."

Peter Taylor is head of universities for Sodexho, one of two companies that provide the sector with the bulk of its outside catering. He says use of catering contractors has grown considerably in the past few years.

"Universities are being more commercially aware, looking for partnership-type arrangements and for quite significant delivery improvements," he says. Scolarest, the other big catering provider, estimates that its business in the sector has risen by 40 per cent over the past five years.

But this is not the whole story. First, although franchises have become more visible, most university catering is still provided in-house. Barry Trahar, catering officer at Bristol and president of the university catering organisation Tuco, says no more than 5 per cent of the sector at one time has ever contracted out its catering. Taylor puts this figure closer to 30 per cent, but it still means that universities provide in-house most of the food staff and students eat.

Second, even if contractors supply the catering, academics can still influence what is served because, unlike schoolchildren - and, to a certain extent, students - they can go elsewhere. Most academics are sufficiently well off to buy something in town and are capable of preparing healthy packed lunches for themselves.

Trahar says the realisation that academics are willing to spend money on a decent meal has helped to raise food quality in recent years. "Until about four years ago, our approach at Bristol was always that we had to be cheap," he says. "We have found that if we improve the quality and therefore have to increase prices, so long as people feel they are getting value for money, you can sell more food."

Academics can exercise even more consumer power by working with students.

Pressure from student unions has forced in-house and contract caterers at about a dozen universities to provide Fair Trade food, and Trahar says several others are discussing it.

All this suggests that the sandwich and snacks culture often has as much to do with academic choices and habits as with the machinations of catering companies or university administrators.

Trahar says that Bristol was concerned that few of its staff ate in its canteen until it questioned them about their eating habits. It emerged that few academics ate proper meals during the day. Many bought lunch - at the university canteen or elsewhere - only a couple of times a week, preferring to eat at home or not at all until the evening.

Sharon Doherty, co-ordinator of the Health Promoting University project based at the University of Central Lancashire, says the reason that no more than 15 per cent of UCLan staff use the in-house catering facilities is that they prefer to get away from work and students in their lunch hour.

Academics themselves blame their workloads for forcing them to forgo a proper lunch. Chris Baldry, professor of human resource management at Stirling University, says: "The pressures of work are considerable. We have to cram stuff down our throats whenever we can."

Such habits are not good. It is against the European Working Time Directive not to have a break, he says. But he is also worried about how lunching in isolation might damage university life, especially "the cross-pollination of ideas you might have got when people had time to have a break".

Whatever the effects on an institution's health, the implications of all this sandwich eating on an individual's health are not too worrying, says John Piggott, reader in food science at Strathclyde University. "A three-course lunch is nutritionally not likely to be much better than a sandwich," he says, although he advises varying the sandwich filling, limiting the amount of fat it contains and choosing brown bread over white.

"The standard British stodge served in a three-course meal usually involves too much fat, too much salt and not enough fruit and veg," he says.

Of far greater concern is how students are affected by a diet of snacks and burgers, which are now campus staples. The Health Promoting University scheme has been focusing on students rather than academics, Doherty says.

Martin Carahar, reader in food and health policy at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, agrees that institutions should think harder about what they serve students, especially because the UK, unlike some other countries, has no generally agreed standards for institutional catering. He also suggests that attention needs to be paid to non-academic staff, who are much less likely to make use of staff canteens because they cannot afford it.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, says the food served in universities should be seen as part of a wider attitude towards institutional food in this country - and the very live issue of whether it should be supplied on the large-scale industrial model or smaller local craft production.

"Britain has begun to wake up to the need to have good food out on the high street and in the home, but we still have a long way to go before that happens," he says.

Yet there is no doubt that however great the workload, the fashion for snacking or the desire to escape colleagues or students the prospect of a good meal still has the power to pull people together - and therefore help to promote the exchange of ideas.

"I would not dream of having a sandwich at my desk if I could have the kind of lunch I had once at the Agricultural Research Institute at Dijon," says Piggott, although he is still to be persuaded that this gives the French an academic edge. "They do not benefit institutionally," he says. "They just have a better lunch - and maybe a happier life."

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