No more chips and beans: the college campus food makeover
Roasted peppers, chickpeas and seabass replace deep-fried fare on student menus
UCC’s “farm to fork” initiative sees food grown on the college’s campus being served to students. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Eating on campus has long been an expensive and disappointing affair. For decades, students and staff were stuck with stodgy options such as sausage, chips and beans because they were among the cheaper and more palatable options on dire menus.
In recent years, however, colleges have been stepping up their game.
Today’s students are the most health-conscious generation ever. They’re no longer prepared to accept slop.
More and more, and largely because of growing financial pressure, they are bringing in their own lunches although, astonishingly, most colleges have been slow to provide basic facilities such as microwaves which would allow them to heat up last night’s leftovers.
Athlone Institute of Technology (IT) and IT Sligo are among the third-level institutions that have appointed healthy campus coordinators, while University College Dublin (UCD) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have developed health promotion strategies; all of these initiatives have nutrition, mental health and exercise at their core.
Lisa Hannon is the healthy campus coordinator at Athlone IT and her work is also supported by the HSE. The role has been in place for seven years.
“It used to be all carvery dinner and sausages, chicken nuggets and chips,” she says. “Now it is a lot nicer and we have a lot more options, including a sandwich bar, vegetarian options, and a noodle station. We promote healthy choice without imposing it on staff and students, as well as healthy breakfasts such as fruit salad and porridge.”
Athlone IT is also organising evening cookery classes for students and, when students work for college events, sometimes pay them in gym or canteen vouchers.
There’s a heavy focus on brain food and making sure that students are informed about healthy and affordable options.
Over at IT Sligo, Yvonne Roache, the health and safety officer, is also the healthy campus coordinator.
The college is taking a four-pronged approach by looking at physical activity, nutrition, emotional and mental health and a better campus environment. It has been recognised as a leader by the Irish Heart Foundation.
“Students have definitely become more health conscious,” she says. “They’re also more aware of what they can do on a tight budget. Students on health or food-related courses at IT Sligo have taken the lead and, if they want to run an initiative, they know they can come to us for support.
“They’ve produced portion size campaigns and leaflets about how to eat well on a budget. On campus, we have three places to eat and there are healthy hot food options; today’s menu was warm chicken and potato salad; a roasted pepper, spinach, chickpea and Danish blue quiche; and seabass, which cost about €7,” says Roache.
Struggling to afford food
Despite improvements in on-campus food options, many students are still struggling to afford food at all.
“I regularly see students who are struggling to buy food,” says Aoibhinn Loughlin, welfare officer of TCD’s students’ union.
“We also provide food for students who really need it, although none of it is fresh. When students can’t afford to eat properly, it hugely impacts on their concentration and general well-being.”
Location is key for students.
Those on city centre campuses such as Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and TCD have a range of options on their doorstep.
Students in National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway and University College Cork (UCC) only have a short stroll into the city for decent food options.
Other students – such as those in Dublin City University, UCD and University of Limerick – will have to get a bus into town if they want to buy lunch off campus, otherwise they are stuck with what is available on campus.
A lunch in Trinity’s main restaurant, the Buttery, will set students back about €6, though they can pick up a sandwich for €4-€5.
Many Trinity students wander off campus; Chopped – which has branches on nearby Westmoreland Street and Grafton Street – is a particularly popular option (UCD gets its own on-campus branch next year).
Sprout on Dawson Street also draws in large numbers of students. The students’ union café does the cheapest lunch on campus: a wrap or sandwich, plus drink or snack, for €4.
All this week, Trinity’s students’ union is running a body and soul week which is promoting healthy eating and exercise.
UCD, in particular, has hugely improved in recent years. The students’ union shop, which is run by the students themselves, has been completely revamped to house a salad bar and a deli that includes sandwiches and quiches, as well as very affordable Insomnia coffee; it is proving to be enormously popular and excellent value.
Odhran Lawlor, the commercial services manager at UCD, oversees all the food outlets on campus except for those run by the students’ union.
“In the tendering process, we do factor in choice, quality and variety when we issue tenders,” he says.
It has four different catering firms on campus who work with the college to provide healthy eating options and dietary advice at lunchtimes.
UCD has also introduced healthier options in the vending machines.
Recently, Lawlor organised a cooking demonstration led by chef Adrian Martin, who regularly appears on television. Like UL, UCD have introduced a weekly food market with a selection of stalls.
Meals at UL will cost around €5.50, but students’ union welfare officer Caolan O’Donnell says that the south campus is better served than the north campus. He is working to put together healthy meal plans for students.
One thing’s for sure: there’s no going back to the days of sausage, chips and beans.
And if students continue to take the lead on good, healthy and affordable food, it seems there is a lot we can learn from them.
‘Students these days want and deserve more than just greasy takeaways’:
One of the most exciting on-campus food initiatives is taking place at UCC, where an eight-acre farm in nearby Curraheen, run by catering firm Kylemore Services Group (KSG), is providing the bulk of food for its restaurants.
Instead of importing food from far-flung destinations, this “farm to fork” project is the first of its kind in any Irish university, growing their fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for KSG’s on-campus restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.
The first harvest took place in September and the farm will continue to produce crops until February, when the land is replanted.
This year, the UCC project won an award from the UK’s Sustainable Restaurant Association, and KSG say they want to become Ireland’s most sustainable caterer.
The initiative is part of the university’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint; it already has a Green Flag campus award.
Kelly Doherty, who is the commercial and communications manager with the students’ union, says: “We’ve worked closely with KSG on the farm initiative. It fits in with our ethos of promoting and supporting healthy eating on campus and we think it reinforces that message of thinking about where our food comes from.
“We’re always trying to help students access good quality food at affordable prices – such as in places like local markets or Lidl – and show them ways of cooking it without too much effort. Students these days want and deserve more than just greasy takeaways.”