Campus catering ‘too expensive and unhealthy’

Cost-of-living crisis has not spawned improvements in university food options, Australian analysis finds

December 13, 2023
A person  mocks taking a bite out of "What a Tasty Looking Burger" by James Dive at Sculpture By The Sea in Sydney, Australia to illustrate Campus catering ‘too expensive and unhealthy’
Source: Getty Images

Rhetorical commitments to sustainability and wellness have not turned Australian universities into oases of nutritious and affordable food, a study suggests.

A Deakin University audit has found that for students and staff alike, cheap and nutritious food is the exception rather than the rule. While universities have pioneered health initiatives like declaring smoking-free campuses, they are dragging their feet on diet.

“The foods available on campus are not very different to what you find in the rest of the world,” said Gary Sacks, co-director of Deakin’s Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition. “Universities are in a position to do much better than the rest of the world. In the past, they have shown leadership around health and other societal issues, but they’re not taking food seriously.”

Using an assessment tool developed by an expert working group and “tailored to the Australian context”, the centre sought permission to analyse universities’ food-related policies, facilities and outlets. The checklist covered issues like planning, advertising, sponsorship and catering as well as the availability, price and environmental impact of on-campus options.

Just nine universities agreed to be assessed, and of these, only four achieved pass marks in a 100-point scorecard. The median score was 46.

Professor Sacks said the nine institutions that had participated deserved credit “for at least opening themselves up to the assessment. It was hard to get engagement from the majority of the universities, which itself I think is telling. This issue isn’t even on their radar.”

He said universities were doing “some minor token things” around food sustainability. Several had rules over the use of take-away coffee containers, for example. “That was the full extent of what they were doing. They’re not taking comprehensive action. Unhealthy food contributes a great deal to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation – it’s a whole lot more than just the packaging that the coffee comes in.”

The analysis found some praiseworthy initiatives. The report says Monash University conducts “comprehensive” monitoring of the campus food environment, and its policies and contractual requirements around food and beverage provision have made its vending machines distinctly healthier than those at other institutions.

The University of Sydney attracts “full marks” for a policy ensuring that only healthy food is served at staff events. The report commends the University of Wollongong’s “Pulse Pantry” food relief programme and the absence of unhealthy food advertisements at the University of Tasmania. Tasmania and Flinders University also earn ticks of approval for regularly surveying staff and students about their dietary needs and preferences.

But the analysis found “precious few examples” of inexpensive meals on campuses, Professor Sacks said. “Given the cost-of-living crisis and the pressure students in particular are under, I would have expected…contracts with retail outlets to specify some rules around affordable lunch options.”

He said administrators should heed the branding benefits of better food provision. “Universities pay a lot of attention to where they rank against each other on research and teaching,” he noted.

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