Food for thought

Quizzing Professor David Russell, Founder and Chairman of The Russell Partnership, about fresh food trends and menu ideas for the new academic year

Flexitarian, plant-based food, vegan, we hear a lot about these rising food trends – are these the most popular trends in HE catering right now?

As you might expect, we are seeing an upward trend for all three trends across the HE catering sector, with a particular emphasis on ‘Vegan Fast Food’ – a real move towards the integration of alternative plant-based foods, but also the incorporation of less nutrient-dense vegan options – a diet which has long been hailed for its high phytonutrient content.

Are they the most popular? It is hard to say in an information age that means perceptions of food and health can change in an instant. Whilst plant-based is certainly popular, we are also seeing students enjoying ethically sourced animal products – such as RSPCA assured eggs and meat – and avoiding high-sugar processed foods in a bid to optimise their health. As we know, food trends are as diverse as our student populations.

Asian-influenced food still remains very strong and we continue to see the market request more food and beverage options that are aligned with wider high-street trends.

Do you think universities are keeping up with these key trends, and catering to demands?

University food needs to be incredibly trend led – the expectation of having every type of food available to students is still strong.

However, regional differences do apply and there is evidence of universities representing trends through their brands and media channels.

Trend-led food is still making street food, chicken, Asian food and vegan offers very popular, yet there is still a high demand for core lines and basic meal deals. The student market is still price conscious yet appears to have more disposable income for food. There are days when the £3 meal deal is essential and days where £10-15 for ramen or chicken is part of the youth culture.

Starbucks and Costa are still very popular with the student audience but this is predicted to shift to the demand for more artisan coffee suppliers.

What about the different demands of international students? Are universities keeping up?

Universities strive to meet differing demands with optimistic caution to ensure outputs are commercially and operationally sustainable. The University of Birmingham has just opened an Asian outlet alongside retail shops which support the provision of items to the international market. Universities in general should also engage with student groups to find the right balance between assumptions of need and also defining the student experience for individual institutions.

Do universities have a responsibility to provide a range of catering options to students?

Food is intrinsic to the social experience of being at university. In a society where young people are drinking less frequently than previous decades, the focus is on quality food and beverage and spending more on the experience several times a week, balancing this with very low spend, fast and health aware days. Universities have a duty of care to ensure that student wellbeing is as important as academic achievement.

Furthermore, Universities are required to continue to deliver access to facilities that aid the optimal experience outcomes and moments of nutritional learning. The drivers and content will be different for each institution – city locations, for example, will be different from campus and residential environs.

What other trends can you see evolving in the months ahead?

Food waste trends are likely to evolve amidst the environmentally conscious generation we are nurturing. Examples consist of: recycling/single plastics, food recovery, food transparency, more natural foods and technological integration.

Our fast paced and digital age will also continue to influence the way in which food is ordered and consumed. We expect to see ready to eat boxes, mobile ordering, digital loyalty schemes, online staff training, and fast track order technologies.

The entrepreneurial nature of our society will also foster co-created enterprises from the community and brands.

And what are the challenges?

We live in a youth culture where drugs are prevalent with an increase in 20–30-year-olds taking recreational drugs as part of their social culture. This could have a huge impact upon both our health services and our pastoral care within university culture.

We call for more investment in education regarding health awareness, lifestyle choices and self-preservation, within schools and universities.

Food choices are very trend led and there is a desire for universities across the UK to be reflective of London and mega city food scenes.

“Opportunities to do it right require some investment and a willingness to respond fast. We all, as university catering providers, need to get on with this. The next on trend offer may be just around the corner! I believe one area to focus on is desserts. The growth in young people seeking a night out that does not involve alcohol is rising. Dessert-based evenings are on trend right now, with ice cream parlours and dessert-based cafes on the rise to meet this demand. And if the growth continues at the current rate, in five years, 75% of all meals taken within a university will be plant-based.” David McKown, Head of Training and Quality, Accommodation and Commercial Services, University of Sheffield
PANEL DISCUSSION: 
How can universities take advantage of emerging food trends?
Join panel chair Professor David Russell at the CUBO Winter Conference on Wednesday 28th November, at Leeds Beckett University, to discuss emerging food trends
Panel Members:
●  Tom Laskey, Business Development Manager, Sodexo Universities
●  Nic Mander, Director of Catering, The University of Birmingham
●  Andrew Walker, Executive Chef, Chartwells