Somewhere off in the dark recesses of my food cupboards may lurk an over-priced pot noddle, possibly some ramen, perennial staples of the supposed student diet. Over the course of summer 2020 there has been mounting talk about food poverty and food banks, and as a student I have found that no national conversation has touched on student nutrition or food welfare. It is easy to joke and point out that students exist on a mix of noodles, pizza, and assorted junk food, but in high stress and low income times I believe it is vital that there is acknowledgement that food and nutrition poverty are crucial issues for students heading to university this September.
For all the jokes, one of the things that is overlooked when considering students is the sheer volume of junk food advertising that is thrown in our direction. Virtually every major fast food company provides student discounts, to the point that it is cheaper to buy McDonalds than it is to buy decent veg. This is not only a student problem, and impacts millions of families, but students are practically a captive audience during their time on campus. It is hard to ignore the deals and easy access when your bank balance is precarious.
Universities, such as Nottingham Trent, are aware of the issue and certainly attempting to change students’ food habits, but there are continually undermined when Student Unions take money and allow advertising from junk food brands. Students may get the dry nutritional information, but this is oversaturated by far bigger marketing budgets. You walk around any campus, especially those in city centres, and it almost a food desert where decent nutrition is hidden in plain sight. Studies have shown that junk food and low nutrition diets directly affect student attainment and concentration, and by not providing ready, and cheap, access to good nutrition universities are simply cascading the problem across their campuses.
You may point out that this is potentially paternalistic, that I am simply arguing for universities to be nannies, yet those same universities who take students tuition fees have a duty of care to ensure that students physical and mental well-being are looked after during their studies. Yes, students have the freedom of choice, but if the only options in a nutrition desert are burgers or pizza then what choice is there? Granted, there is a degree of hyperbole in this, but the irony is that when you loose 18 year olds who have only a rough idea of good nutrition into the wider world they need a degree of hand holding to make sure they can remain healthy.
Added to this, with rising food costs and the lack of increase in student loans and bursaries, there is likely to be an ever-increasing squeeze on student budgets over the next year. It is easy to advise students to budget, but if you only have £10 or £20 a week for food that leaves very few nutritious options that will sustain a healthy lifestyle. Food budgeting also relies on a good understanding of balanced diets, as well as helping students see the value in learning to nutritious food. This is not to say the odd burger is not okay, but without decent ingredients and an understanding of how to cook them students are left with food that in the long term does them little nutritional benefit.
The obvious solution would be to give students compulsory cooking lessons, access to university canteens at a significantly reduced discount where nutritious food was served three times a day and provide food support for those students who need it. Universities generally do provide a welfare net, but sometimes it can take weeks for students to get the help they need, and in the meantime they are left struggling to cope. In a time when students are already under significant stress, and getting access to nutritious food is complicated, universities need to empower students to feel confident about talking through these issues.
A more radical solution would be to ban all junk food and junk food advertising from university spaces, and replace it with food that nutritionally benefits students. However, given that students are likely to vote with their feet and go to the local burger or pizza joint this is a definite none starter. Junk food has too much of a grip on the student demographic, and the insidious nature of both the cheap availability and advertising means it is next to impossible wean students away from it.
I have to grapple with these issues myself, and over the last four years there have been points where I was reliant on both the university and my parents for financial support to ensure I had enough to eat. This summer, without my parents I would have had no funds for food. I am not ashamed to admit that I have needed help, and I am very fortunate to have been in a position to receive it. Even aged 38 times can and have been tough. Student food poverty is not just a young student issue, it can impact all ages and demographics. There is no shame in talking about it, and the more this is discussed, the sooner it can be tackled on a systemic level. No student should go without good nutrition, and no student should ever have to only choose between different stripes of nutrient lacking food.
If we want our students to get the most out of their university experience we cannot expect them to simply made food choices off their own back, as the game is loaded against them. Bad nutrition is not just an issue of money or access, but about the willingness of universities to allow companies to exploit their students; indeed, universities themselves supply nutrient deficient food to their students and staff in their canteens at a price that cash strapped students cannot ignore. £1.00 chips or £4.00 healthy pasta, the choice is yours. Food is rigged in favour of cheap junk food because that is supposedly what sells and appeals. Universities need to step up their game and recognise that if they want healthy students it will take more than a health week or health campaign to do it. There needs to be a complete rethink of what food is sold on campus and in campus shops, what brands they allow to advertise, what nutrition training they give to students, and what support they provide to ensure that those who cannot afford nutritious food can still gain access to a healthy diet.
This cuts to the very heart of student welfare, and while I am moving into a PhD that provides a generous stipend for me to live on, many other students are not so fortunate in the coming academic year. There is a clear duty of care that all universities bare, and it is essential that we hold them to account for it. The onus has been placed on students, when in fact in a rigged nutrition game it is universities that now need to step up. Only then can student food poverty be alleviated, both in terms of available nutritious food and the ability for students to access it.