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Food for thought: can Warwick students afford to eat on campus?

A long day filled with back-to-back lectures or intense studying at the FAB calls for a filling and healthy lunch to keep the wheels turning upstairs: food for thought if you will.

The University of Warwick’s campus offers a range of food outlets for students to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst: More than 20 different ones are dotted around campus, including various cafés, restaurants, and pubs. Some, such as Curiositea and the Dirty Duck, are managed by the Students’ Union (SU), while others constitute a local branch of a national enterprise. The latter applies to Pret a Manger and Café Nero as well as Varsity and the Benugo inside Warwick Arts Centre.

Food on campus is relatively accessible, but it’s not affordable

Nadia, a third-year student

The Boar spoke to students about their views on the on-campus food outlets. Opinions on prices varied, with a second-year student who lives on campus and wished to remain anonymous saying that “the Food Station and the Duck are both pretty good options for an affordable treat.” Other students’ assessments of food on campus ranged from “good value for money” to “not affordable”, “just too expensive”, and “unbelievably pricey”. Nadia, a third-year GSD and PAIS student, suggested food on campus was “relatively accessible, but it’s not affordable. I’d purchase something only in case of an emergency.” 

Some students voiced their discontent with the lunch options available to Warwick students more strongly. Eden, a fourth-year PPL student, commented on the chips from Café Library: “£2.75 for something that disintegrates in my mouth. It’s ridiculous.” George, a third-year Physics student, said: “[Prices] are rather high considering these are outlets geared towards students, and what it says to me is that the SU is more concerned with turning a profit than providing affordable meals to students. I don’t think it’s the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ that drives these prices, but rather the SU’s not-so-charitable business structure.” 

In addition to high prices, some students pointed out that even when there are affordable options, they are not provided in sufficient quantity. A Liberal Arts student who preferred to remain anonymous told The Boar: “Even though Café Library has soup, it is often sold out or running low, unlike the other options which are replenished constantly.” 

Rootes Grocery Store, the on-campus supermarket, is a popular alternative to purchasing hot meals from cafés or restaurants. The shop offers a Sandwich Meal Deal consisting of a sandwich or wrap, a snack, and a drink, for £ 4.50; and a Lunch Meal Deal containing a burger, crisps, a flapjack, and a soft drink, for £ 4.99. For comparison, the regular meal deal at Tesco in Cannon Park, which is not affiliated with the University of Warwick, is £3.40 with a Clubcard (or £3.90 without one). 

Many students decide to forgo purchasing food on campus altogether, instead bringing pre-cooked meals from home that only need to be reheated. Archie, a second-year History student, said: “I barely eat on campus at all, I’d much rather make my own lunch and bring it in.” 

However, this requires access to microwaves, which remain in high demand, with queues forming in front of them around lunchtime. Up until very recently, microwaves could only be found in select spaces on campus, including the Chaplaincy and some departmental common rooms reserved for students on affiliated degrees. The recent introduction of more non-commercial indoor spaces for food consumption with microwaves, such as The Green Room in the SU Headquarters and a designated dining room area in Café Library, has sought to address what many students perceive as a glaring lack of them. 

Another solution is for students to live on campus even after first year, which gives them the additional option of going back to their accommodation for meals. George explained: “I try to make all my own lunches, so much so that this was a contributing factor for me to live on campus [as a returning student].” 

For students with specific dietary requirements, eating on campus can be challenging

There is little doubt that affordability is an issue that many students are concerned about, even more so against the backdrop of the current cost-of-living crisis that is hitting students and young people particularly hard. However, accessibility goes beyond being able to pay for lunch on campus. It is also a question of whether there are options compatible with one’s diet.  

For students with specific dietary requirements, eating on campus can be challenging. Rosie, a second-year Physics student, spoke to The Boar about her experiences with food on campus as someone with coeliac disease. She pointed out that “most people are able to get lunch on campus, but that isn’t really possible to the same extent for coeliacs.” Rosie was also keen to stress that “for coeliacs, it’s not a choice to eat gluten-free it’s a requirement to stay healthy, so I think there should be more options and information to make accessing food on campus easier for people with allergies and intolerances.” This is particularly pertinent as there is very little information available on the University’s website about accessible options at outlets. 

This extends to vegan and vegetarian options, which are a contentious topic. In the UK, around 8% of young people aged 20 to 29 follow a vegetarian diet, and there have long been calls to take these preferences into consideration when decisions are made on on-campus catering. While successful at other universities such as Cambridge, recent initiatives by interest groups and societies such as VegSoc to push for more vegan and vegetarian options at Warwick have failed to garner sufficient student support. An All Student Vote (ASV) motion proposing to mandate that all SU food outlets make 50% of their food offering vegan and the SU should lobby the University to do the same was very narrowly rejected in February 2023. A similar ASV motion, pushing for mandating that all SU outlets should make 50% of their offering plant-based with a commitment to make that 100% by the 2027-28 academic year, is set to be put up for a vote this term. 

There appears to be a consensus among students that there is room for improvement when it comes to food on campus, and perhaps other universities in the UK and around the world offer models and approaches from which Warwick might be able to take inspiration. 

While all on-campus accommodation, from Whitefields to Bluebell, is self-catered at Warwick, catered student accommodation is common at other universities. The most well-known example of this are the college dining halls at Oxford and Cambridge, which usually offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner for under £ 10 per day. For instance at St. John’s College, Oxford prices range from £1.15 for breakfast to £ 4.39 for formal dinner. The halls also fulfil a vital function as social hubs. While by far the most well-known examples, Oxford and Cambridge, are by no means the only universities that offer catered accommodation. The University of Nottingham, for instance, offers a mix of catered and self-catered halls of residence. 

In many other countries, there is a canteen culture

Dining halls might dominate the landscape of catered accommodation in the UK and at some US universities, but in many other countries, there is a canteen culture. Canteens or dining rooms are centralised eating spaces located on campus or at key locations in a university city that students flock to around lunchtime. Crucially, these tend to be run by students’ unions rather than private companies. Food there is often subsidised and thus extremely affordable, meaning that even students who live in flats or other non-university accommodation have lunch there because cooking for yourself cannot beat their prices. 

Elena, an Italian Studies exchange student from Tuscany, said: “Back where I’m from, people pay for their meal in the uni canteen based on their income. So, if you have a low income, you won’t pay for your meal, or you’ll pay a very small amount. For me, it was free, but for other people, it could be € 3-4 (roughly £2.5-3.5) per meal.” 

Italy is not the only country with a distinctive canteen culture: in many French university towns, the local branch of the CROUS, an organisation that operates student residences, also runs canteens; in Germany, they are often managed by the local Studentenwerk (Students’ Union). In a decision that made headlines, Berlin’s student canteens went majority vegan and vegetarian in 2021. And canteens all over the world, from Poland to Sri Lanka, continue to attract the attention of researchers studying a range of phenomena such as consumer choices, queueing patterns, and food waste, as they constitute fascinating case studies. 

Warwick does not have a central cafeteria or canteen as of yet, nor does a move to catered on-campus accommodation seem likely. It remains to be seen whether the Students’ Union will take measures to address what many perceive as a glaring lack of affordable and accessible food options and provide food for thought fit for students. 

The Students’ Union has been contacted for comment. 


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