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Healthy thinking

Luke Evans finds out why healthy eating has become an indelible part of higher education catering

Food and drink are the two staples that people pick out when they want to stereotype student life – from frozen pizzas and cheap kebabs to beer, vodka and everything in-between, students are generally given equal footing with seagulls and rats when it comes to healthy living. Sadly, the small forays made by medical researchers into studying the average student diet have pretty much proved these stereotypes right: in 2010, a study by members of the Department of Psychology and Counselling at Newman University College found that more than half of the students sampled were eating under the recommended daily allowance for fruit and vegetables, failing to exercise properly, and binge drinking at least once a week. Similarly, research done at Coventry University in the same year discovered that many young men use dietary supplements to balance out their erratic eating habits in the hopes of achieving a more macho look. On top of this, the student diet seems to be something that parents can’t vaccinate against — Dr Ricardo Costa, who led the study at Coventry, calls higher education a “level playing field” where people indulge in bad habits regardless of how they’ve been raised.

It falls to the higher education sector, then, to offer alternative options. Like any other area of university study, healthy eating is something that takes a concerted effort to get right, and that means more than just putting up a few posters about getting your five-a-day. Many universities have chosen to meet the growing demand for healthy, gourmet meals by bringing in outside talent, and Aramark are one of the industry’s rising contract caterers: they work with universities from Sunderland and Salford down to the sprawling colleges of the University of London, providing fresh food choices for a plethora of students. Earlier this year, Aramark launched the first phase of their ‘Healthy for Life’ programme, which is designed to offer healthier options for clients and customers across all of their sites, covering everything from healthier Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Thai dishes to recipe cards, lectures, talks and cookery classes.

Aramark’s Health and Wellbeing Manager, Candice West, has picked up on the gap between what students practice and what they preach; she points to a study from last year by YouGov, which found that two thirds of students said they always try to eat healthily, while 54% pay attention to the fat content of their food, with around 40% similarly concerned about calories and salt levels. “Health is clearly important to students,” she says – and it falls to caterers to address those needs. In her view, Aramark are well equipped to meet the demand: “The scale of Aramark’s operations means we have the insight and capabilities to encourage healthier eating, which some individual in-house catering operations may not.”

Sure enough, Aramark’s approach to healthy eating is careful and methodical. They’re a signatory to the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, charting their progress while delivering healthier options for their customers. “All our recipes are audited by our in-house dieticians and our chefs undertake nutritional training covering food development and preparation,” West says, pointing out that this keeps the menus under constant review. Aramark also make sure they pay attention to the supply chain – they were the only company to make the grade in the food service sector for Ethisphere’s ‘World’s Most Ethical Companies’ list. Their approach comes out of a concern for customers and employee wellbeing, with the hope of achieving the best results by using the best produce, whether that means seeking out seasonal vegetables, or sourcing dairy products from Red Tractor certified farms.

The international clout of Aramark’s services also allows them to keep up with what West calls “the wider health and wellbeing agenda – attending conferences and events, taking information from our core suppliers, and working with our dieticians. We also undertake our own market research,” she adds, “often at individual university level, to understand the motivations and drivers of the student population, and often carry out focus group discussions on the issues which matter and to see what kind of healthy products and messaging students will respond to.”

For West, thinking healthy is just as important as eating healthy: “The rationale is that it’s not just enough to supply healthier food options in isolation – to maximise uptake, people need to be aware of the health benefits of particular foods or ingredients or, conversely, the risks to health of over-indulging in some of them.” Her team is currently producing a ‘Student Survival Guide’, which offers advice on how to keep up good physical and mental health while adjusting to first year student life, including up-to-date nutritional information, tips for food shopping, advice on alcohol intake, fresher’s flu, and starter recipes for cooking healthier dishes.

Aramark’s holistic approach to healthy eating isn’t always easy for universities to create on their own, but some places have set out to prove that they can go it alone. The University of Leeds is a standout example in this area: their Great Food at Leeds catering team covers all fronts, from cafés and tuck shops to delivery options and fine dining. The catering services at the university include 12 cafés spread across its main campus, with a 13th at the Clinical Sciences Building in St James’ Hospital, all of which are open between early morning and late afternoon offering salads, wraps and gourmet sandwiches, with gluten-free and halal options available among other dietary requirements. At the heart of the campus is The Refectory, which is open until the early evening, providing dishes which draw on a range of culinary styles from across the world, while also offering balanced meals for catered accommodation. For those less likely to rely on university catering, Leeds also run a loyalty card system, encouraging students to eat healthy and affordable meals from the University’s outlets – thereby helping to cut down on the glut of unhealthy takeaway food available around the city campus.

The team’s dedication to finding healthy and sustainable food sources has seen them receive consistent accreditation from Food for the Brain, a group that focuses on providing the most balanced type of nutrition for a healthy mind. Leeds is one of four universities nominated for Best Catering Service in this year’s College & University Business Officers (CUBO) Awards, along with Manchester Metropolitan, Loughborough and Reading. In each case, the universities nominated seem to have achieved their prestige by using ethical food sources and a smorgasbord of culinary styles, ensuring dishes are both healthy and – crucially – tasty, while also offering meal deals and other affordable reasons for students to eat food on campus. Leeds and Loughborough are also linked into the Student Cooking.TV project, which provides a portal for students and universities to upload content about eating as a student, ranging from recipes and cookery shows to documentaries on sustainable eating options.

There is, however, still some way to go when it comes to healthy eating in higher education. Over in America, the Harvard School of Public Health have published research into the various levels of misinformation provided in nutritional pamphlets. They found that the usual materials distributed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which bear more than a passing resemblance to those given out by the NHS – are outdated and lacking in clear nutritional information. The NHS’ own ‘Eatwell plate’ features no differentiation between wholegrains and refined grains, despite the latter being linked to high blood pressure, excessive weight gain and Type 2 diabetes, with the suggestion that it’s also okay for a sixth of your diet to consist of dairy, even though high intakes have been linked to prostate cancer and high retinol intake, which weakens bones. By comparison, Harvard’s redesigned ‘Healthy Eating Plate’ shows some clearer information on what is and isn’t healthy to eat – but, as the advice to “stay active” shows, it’s still only one of the many methods needed to make sure that students stay healthy.

The need to keep abreast of new developments shows that healthy eating isn’t just matter of switching food sources. If catering teams in higher education are going to take more of an active role in the health of their students, it’s important that they pay close attention to what they’re being told. After all, staying in shape is just like any other academic practice: you have to draw on strong research, inquisitive minds, and a variety of methods if you want to get anything approaching good results.