The way to a student’s heart is through their stomach

Faye Sully looks at how two previous CUBO Award winners have placed catering at the heart of their offer to students

Manchester Metropolitan University

Manchester Metropolitan University Catering has been on a journey of change and development over the last five years, culminating in a successful £1m turnaround.

Five years ago the catering department operated as a service to the University and was in a significant deficit position. The University recognised that it wasn’t fulfilling students’ expectations or effectively competing with the array of brands and products in the external market space. The catering facilities in the oldest buildings were poorly located and badly maintained meaning that they were not providing a space students wanted to utilise.

Today MMU catering presents a very different image, providing a service that students, and staff, delight in. Financially, catering outlets are exceeding their budgets, and hospitality income continues to grow. There are currently 11 catering outlets taking over 186,000 transactions on a daily basis.

The transformation was a significant project, involving extensive market research, investment in staff development, the creation of new eating and social learning spaces and environmental consciousness.

The market research involved surveying over 2,000 students and staff. From the feedback, a new ‘World Food Menu’ was developed. They introduced street food concepts and also provided clearly labelled halal and vegetarian food.

A key change was the transformation of the staffing profile; ensuring team members were pro-active, flexible and positive. Through events such as a staff conference, the team felt more included in the direction of the new service. They now take ownership of their work and are keen to know what the daily sales figures are and what they can do to drive these up.

Events such as the first MMU Barista competition also helped to develop staff skills. Over 20 baristas took part. Supplier PEROS commented: “The drink quality was superb and as MMU’s coffee partner I was filled with pride. It is no mean feat to have 24 baristas who can all make such great drinks.”

Recognising the importance of the physical environment, MMU worked hard to redesign its eating spaces. In one of the most recently opened outlets, The Atrium, flatscreen TVs and computer points provide social learning spaces where students can meet, work on projects, grab a coffee and a flatbread pizza in modern, bright and airy surroundings. Judging by student reaction, they have got this spot on!

MMU Catering also played a vital role in achieving the UK’s ‘Greenest University’ in 2013. The team developed menus using locally sourced produce, used MSC accredited fish and are in receipt of the Good Egg Award. In the future they are aiming for a sustainable food award and moving towards compostable containers to reduce landfill. The development of green initiatives and Green Impact Gold status for staff recognition has enabled the University to achieve a top three first-class rank in the People and Planet Green League for the last three years.

Harper Adams University

At Harper Adams University sustainable development and environmental consciousness are at the heart of the institution.  Core studies are sustainable farming, land, animals and the food supply chain, therefore all support services integrate thoroughly with the overall student experience. From field to fork the University envisages a catering plan whereby the majority of produce is farmed and prepared self-sufficiently, right on campus.

The ethos of farm to fork is embedded throughout students’ learning right through from the practical sessions utilising farming systems on site to the catering department using this produce to feed the students. The following are just some examples of how this bespoke service integrates within the student experience:

✥The catering department minimises food waste by adopting a ‘nose to tail’ approach to livestock, pigs’ trotters are used by the Veterinary Nursing students to practice suturing, ensuring minimal waste in every aspect of the operation.

✥Pigs’ ears are roasted and used as treats for the volunteer dogs that come for Physiotherapy sessions with the Veterinary Physiotherapy students.

✥Offal from HAU livestock was used in a student-led project entitled ‘A Hearty Meal’ utilising cheaper, less commonly used parts of the animal such as heart, kidney and liver. This product won a national prize and represented the UK in the finals of the prestigious Ecotrophelia food innovation competition.

✥With support  from the Regional Food Academy, another student business, ‘Really Porky Pies’ was generated, producing artisan pies.

✥Staff and students take part in two ‘Great Harper Bake Off’ events annually in support of various charities.

Supply chain management is taught at the University and encourages food students to interact with the catering department. Fairtrade sourcing is one particular topic that students engage with. Harper Adams gained Fairtrade status in 2009 and is now featured in the best practice guide for Universities striving for Fairtrade status.

Harper Adams produce is used to feed approximately 300 catered students residing on campus, utilising one cow, three pigs and six lambs weekly. They produce 300lb of sausages and burgers, and cure their own meat within the dedicated on-site butchers. The catering staff measure plate waste and inform students of volumes they throw away weekly, eg “Last week alone we threw away over 750kg in waste from your returned plates – that’s equivalent to the weight of a large cow!”

While it would be difficult for many institutions to operate such levels of self-sufficiency, the idea of getting students and staff more involved in the food supply chain, from understanding how their food is sourced to minimising their food waste is very achievable.

Loughborough University had a very successful ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ campaign which created savings of around 20% in 2012/3. Reading University uniquely operates dairy farms that sell milk into the consortium they buy from.

Both the MMU and Harper Adams case studies show that engaging students through food can have both financial and environmental rewards, at the same time as increasing student satisfaction.

Whether it is a high-tech social learning space serving coffee made by an award-winning barista, or an ethos of ‘field to fork’ self sufficiency, both case studies show that catering is not just a service but plays an important role in supporting the students’ learning experience. 

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