Food for thought: is catered accommodation a good idea?
Coming to university one faces many interesting hurdles. Firstly, how do you get out of bed unaided by disgruntled parents? Secondly, is it physically possible to stay drunk for the whole of freshers week or will the hangover of doom eventually loom its ugly head? And finally, how do you make a meal that doesn’t gain its only nutrition from vegetables suitably arranged on top of a Costcutter pizza?
Catered accommodation packages are a relatively new addition to the University of York and, though far from the almost embedded catered culture at other universities, they are becoming an increasingly more prevalent choice for halls. Freshers will find that certain blocks are allocated as ‘catered’, only accepting students if they agree to food provision by the University. At York, new students in certain areas will have to pay £30 extra per week on top of basic accommodation costs in return for two meals a day, five days a week.
Over the past few years Derwent residents have taken to this option of a cooking-free first year especially well, with their welfare team delighted at the impact on college and community spirit. Communal meal times can promote intermingling of college members, open your eyes to meals you may have never considered making or just help alleviate the strain of fitting in both your revision and preparations for a night at Ziggys, cutting out cooking time.
Granted, steering students away from that 6th pot noodle of the week may have its merits, but is this catered option a cushion to what should be a growth in university independence and maturation?
“I can’t cook” was a resounding justification from my own freshers as I took them to their first ever meal in Vanbrugh dining hall. The issue in justifying catering as an option for those who can’t cook is that next year…they need to be able to cook if they ever live off campus, or even if they wish to eat at weekends and lunchtimes. Costcutter can only stock so many microwave meals for one.
I am no doubt questioning the need for catering services in general on campus, but is it right to encourage canteen style dining with little opportunity to develop culinary skills, work together with housemates to make a meal or even choose to eat breakfast later than 10am? Many students end up missing breakfast, forfeiting meetings and practices to eat evening meals, or conversely just missing meals and buying extra food on top of the hefty catering fees they already pay.
Further to this, when someone cooks for you, you have lost the personal responsibility and organisation of your own meal times. Though this may make adjustment less drastic from a supportive home environment, it also promotes the illusion of the university bubble, disconnected from the real world in which the ability to juggle cooking meals, cleaning communal areas and doing work (as well as the odd outing to willow) is essential.
So do we actually need this forced catered package? Is catering a healthy option in the long term if we are just putting students off developing key life skills for another year, limiting the choice of which blocks self-caterers can apply for, and creating a dull unappetising meal choice for those with numerous dietary requirements?
For me, my inability to get out of bed before 12pm, and my best friends, who essentially thrive on communal meals, self-catering was definitely the right option. I lived in in a block which has been described by some students as “some of the worst accommodation on campus” with “truly awful facilities”. But I survived. I actually learned to cook some things along the way. Despite needing to turn anything in the oven around after half the time to make sure each side was actually cooked, I made - and learned to make - some very decent meals.
Although my feelings are clear, the people running a campaign against the University practice are interested to see what you think. They want to gather opinion on why you chose either catered or self-catered accommodation, your experiences with this and in retrospect whether this was the right choice for you. In canvassing real student opinion (and not just that of myself, oversleeping and bad food-habits included) the University will be made to understand and adapt far more effectively to meet demands to catering where necessary, hopefully stopping these forced packages where they are not required.
If you'd like to fill in the survey, whether you lived, on, or off campus and help the campaign you can do so here.