Soul food: catering for today’s student

Luke Dormehl finds out how university catering teams are providing for students with diverse religious, cultural or dietary needs

Universities and higher education institutions are a hotbed of diversity, bringing large numbers of mostly younger people from all over the world, from a wide range of backgrounds, to one location to live and learn together. There are all sorts of areas in which ever-increasing diversity manifests itself on campus, but few are closer to the hearts (and stomachs) of students than the food.

While everyone has their own likes and dislikes when it comes to food, for university caterers it is paramount to ensure that those with diverse religious and cultural needs have these requirements addressed. Doing so can be challenging at times, but it’s also crucially important. After all, given the centrality of food to the lives of many learners, making sure that diversity is represented through catering options is a very visible way of showing that these concerns are taken seriously by staff.

Food diversity doesn’t mean certain groups should end up paying more to eat


“Things have changed in a big way,” Manish Shah, a non-executive director for The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), with more than 19 years of experience in the catering and hospitality field, tells University Business. “Twenty years ago, food was still very institutional: people expecting bangers and mash for dinner and a full English breakfast. That’s changed. Part of that is globalisation. The world is a smaller place.”

Shah, who also works as associate director of Kings Food at King’s College London, says that he considers four factors when it comes to putting new food on the menu:

● How does it measure on sustainability?
● Is it in keeping with current trends (think the recent push towards superfoods, for example)?
● Is it authentic?
● And how does it fit in with different dietary preferences and requirements, whether these are dietary choices or necessities, ranging from vegetarianism to religious requirements?

Not every dish or food item will conform to all four of these factors, but the fact that they are considered as the baseline when it comes to decision-making highlights how important this area is. This is essential because diversity and inclusivity in catering isn’t simply something that can be tacked on at the end; it has to be considered every step of the way – from the suppliers that are selected, to how food is stored and prepared, and to the chefs who are hired to help make it, to the student groups, and others who are consulted along the way. All these must be given proper attention before a single dish is cooked and plated up.

Themed evenings can get great feedback from students


A focus on diversity

For good reason, many universities and other higher educational establishments are focusing more than ever on this kind of culinary diversity. For example, in 2019 it was reported that Oxford University spent £12,000 making its college menus more diverse, with the money coming as part of a wider push from the university’s diversity fund.

As universities have embraced more diverse student populations, the ability to be able to effectively cater for everyone has increased in importance.

“We are able to cater for [all] those who follow a particular religious diet,” Andrew Wood, food development manager at the University of York, tells University Business. “We are currently providing and liaising with any student who is observing Ramadan. We cover kosher as well and, when requested, [can] provide halal food.”


Sushi is a bestseller, says TUCO’s Manish Shah


Wood says that York has built links with suppliers who are able to provide halal meat and other halal supplies. While halal is the biggest specific food requirement as a group, other requirements must also be taken into consideration.

It’s also important that these be reflected across different budgets, so that certain student groups are not consistently made to pay up more than others. “We build all the different menus into our catering, so it suits all people’s budgets and needs,” Wood says.

For Shah, the biggest challenge when it comes to diversity of catering isn’t the budget – although he noted that this certainly is a consideration. He says that students are happy to spend a bit more money for high-quality food. For example, the top-selling dish is a £5.50 sushi platter. However, the challenge is the “skill sets” needed to prepare this food and “deliver something that is authentic”. He says that, with students from 160 different nationalities, doing this can be tough, but the team he works with goes out of its way to try.

“We want to make everyone feel comfortable,” he says. “When it comes to celebrating religious festivals, for example, or Chinese New Year, [we will all do our best]. We work with the student unions to try and make sure we incorporate [as many suggestions] as we can.”

Food can foster understanding and cohesion


Seek help

This importance of liaising with students and student groups is one that is widely cited. “The most common religious-based diet is halal and we liaise with the Muslim society to ensure all students and staff are kept informed of the offerings,” Andrew Wood comments. “We will also ask the society for advice and help.”

Wood continues: “We regularly ask students about what dishes they would like to appear on the menus and try to offer a diverse food offering across campus to meet all needs. We visited China some years ago and got a clear understanding that Chinese students were very attached to their home cooking. [We] try and replicate regional dishes in certain outlets.

“We also do food-themed evenings where we can highlight and promote different food cultures, and have just had some great feedback from a very successful global week where we had different dishes… every night, representing lots of countries and food cultures.”

Manish Shah notes that, when it comes to the diversity of food, there is often a balancing act between presenting food that offers students what they are familiar with and offering them a flavour of the country they have chosen to study in – or elsewhere. “Whenever I go travelling, I try and eat local food from wherever I am because I want to celebrate that culture and food because it bonds me to the city or country that I’m in,” he comments.

He adds that, in an incredibly diverse city like London, there’s plenty of opportunity to introduce students to new foods that they might not previously have experienced.

A microcosm of university diversity

Ultimately, catering for students with diverse religious and cultural needs is a microcosm of showing this kind of diversity and inclusion across the wider university community. It not only fosters understanding, but also community cohesion. Put simply: food can play a key role not just for making students feel heard and listened to, but also helping them socialise and better understand those who come from different geographic or cultural backgrounds.

“Eating is something that people do for both cultural and social interaction,” Shah says. “It’s where students interact a lot with one another. We want to make sure that we present an inclusive environment for that. We think very, very carefully about our menus.”

As universities start to return to normal after the pandemic, with more students returning to campus, no doubt this trend will continue. Catering might be just one small part of a wider, more complex challenge regarding inclusion and diversity, but it’s one that, thankfully, is being taken very seriously in 2021 – and beyond.

Biggest food trends for spring 2021

The veganism boom means sourcing more protein-based products


“Universities are focused on providing a food offering that will meet students’ needs, but their biggest challenge is to provide an offering that will also give them the edge over rival high-street offerings,” says Michelle Parnham, FE and university specialist at Pelican Procurement Services.

“A key trend is vegan food, which is here to stay. More and more students are opting for vegan food – some for religious or dietary reasons, but many are choosing it to support the sustainability movement.

“The current challenges for universities include providing more protein-based products, and coming up with innovative ideas to satisfy their students who are looking for 100% vegan products. We have been recently helping one of our university clients to source new suppliers, and suitable products with the right flair and ingredients for their opening of a vegan outlet.

“Recently, Pelican has been supporting one of our university clients looking to source speciality cheese, patisserie goods, salmon, handmade pork and Cumberland sausages – providing assured local content.

“Another client was looking to find a local London supplier, specialising in handcrafted breads and pastries.

“In addition, we have also sourced handmade sushi packs for a ‘grab and go’ product range, as the university chef wanted something different, handmade and of ‘high-end’ quality.”

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