Should the University sacra-fries certain foods for healthier options on campus?

Bowls of fruit

Credit: Pixabay / Silviarita

Rona MacNicol
Writer

Is Glasgow University doing enough to encourage students’ healthy eating on campus?

With a seemingly inherent addiction to avocados, nutribullets, and Instagram fitness videos, the “millennial” generation, many of whom are students, seem to have sussed out healthy living far better than their predecessors. Indeed, studies repeatedly find that younger generations have greater awareness of healthy exercise and dietary habits. Wandering around Glasgow University’s campus, this certainly seems to be the case. With a multitude of sports clubs and a state-of-the-art gym complex it certainly cannot be argued that the student populace as a whole are inactive. Similarly, food choices at university catering units, such as Food for Thought on level three of the Fraser building, seem to have become increasingly conscious of supplying healthy and environmentally sustainable food choices. The caterers boast pioneering the first university vegan menu in the UK, and a number of healthy snacks are increasingly appearing in vending machines.

At the same time, while all of this signals a progressive approach to the University’s food environment, there nevertheless remains an abundance of unhealthy options at most food and drink outlets throughout the University.

The vending machines sell a wide range of fizzy drinks, chocolate bars and crisps, the volume of which far outweighs that of raw bars, nuts, and fruit on offer. In the Fraser building cafeteria, arguably the biggest queue is the one for the freshly made pizzas. While not as unhealthy as a Domino’s, these are still high in refined carbohydrates, fat and sodium. And the latest addition to the library cafe is the Rollover hot dog, a processed food traditionally found to contain multiple preservatives, flavourings, and colourings. When questioned about this and whether the University really does take this issue seriously, a spokesperson responded, “we do offer pizzas and hot dogs, but also an extensive range of soups, salads and vegetarian dishes and across the campus we aim to provide choice and value and to cater for all members of the University community. We take this role very seriously and are always working to develop new and innovative ranges; we listen to our users and are always reflecting on any feedback we receive.”

The British Nutrition Foundation advises students to “take along their own items [to the library] like bananas, cereal bars, dried apricots or a handful of unsalted nuts or rice crackers”, in order to avoid the temptation of grabbing a snack, like those mentioned above which are high in fat or sugar.

True, bringing one’s own food is cost-effective and tends to be healthier. However, if nutritional experts are listing these foods to be more desirable for a healthy body and a healthy mind, it seems like it could be a logical decision for universities to reduce and replace those unhealthy foods – which pose a temptation to lethargic students in need of a boost – with healthier, more nutritious options.

There is, of course, an argument that living in an economically liberal society should afford the consumer the freedom to choose their own products in terms of food. It is this argument, coupled with a general social belief in individualism, which has often informed various producers, corporations and even governmental bodies to suggest that the individual is the person most responsible for constructing their own healthy lifestyle. This could be applied within the context of university catering, claiming that it is unproblematic for universities to provide an array of unhealthy foods, since students should be free to exercise independent choice in relation to their own personal diet and health.

However, research is increasingly suggesting that a greater, more holistic approach should be taken to improve the diets of society, and this is equally true in the context of university. In fact, governments, businesses and the individual all must play a role in selecting a healthier lifestyle and the position of the University as an educational institution. The Scottish government recently conducted a consultation which found that, although consumer knowledge and responsibility plus exercise are important health determinants, that more interventions which rely less on individual choice and more on changes in the food environment are the key to making healthier choices on a daily basis.

Although by no means a measure of diet at Glasgow University, the overall statistics on Scottish diet suggest that monumental changes are required in our food system as a whole, and that includes the food environment of the University. Nourish Scotland, an NGO campaigning for food-related justice, found in 2016 that all of the Scottish dietary goals had been missed every year since monitoring began in 2001. The effects of poor diet in Scotland are drastic, with 65% of adults overweight and 29% obese in 2016, according to government statistics. Only 20% of adults meet the five-a-day fruit and vegetable recommendation, and in 2016 adults’ mean consumption of fruit and vegetables was lowest for those aged 16-24. A Scottish Parliament investigation in 2015 found that the annual cost to NHS Scotland of overweight individuals and obesity combined may be as much as £600 million, and estimates of the broader economic costs of obesity to Scotland range from £0.9 billion to £4.6 billion per year.

This is not to suggest that the University of Glasgow has a massive obesity problem, but rather, it should act more generally as an incentive for institutions, corporations, governments and individuals to join together in order to re-evaluate the importance of healthy food consumption and the state of our food system. A positive example of an institution taking charge on this matter can be found in a recent Scottish government proposal aimed at combating obesity, to ban retailers from selling junk food at low prices or on promotions, and will also seek to tackle marketing and advertising of unhealthy food. Exerting power over the junk food industry and over food options of consumers could equally be implemented in the university setting.

The Healthy Universities Network argue, based upon evidence from schools and the workplace, that an increased role played by universities in providing healthy and nutritious food options for staff and students will create healthy learners and healthy staff. This, in turn, can increase levels of achievement, performance, productivity and reputation, thereby “helping universities conduct their core business more effectively”. In other words, the University, by taking greater responsibility of the health of both staff and students, could actually benefit its own output and reputation as an academic institution.

Increased intervention and advice on diet is often viewed negatively, as something invasive and unwarranted. However, should Glasgow University seek to play a bigger role in determining the diet of their students, they may in fact reap reward. Just as they paved the way for UK-wide vegan menus in universities, the University could also lead by example by seriously reducing the availability of high sugar and refined carbohydrate snacks, and processed foods. Thus, seriously limiting the availability of junk food available on campus.

Not only would this enhance academic performance, it could also develop an enriched conscience of diet and nutrition among students which they could take further into their careers and broader society. There is little research on the impact of institutionalising healthy eating in universities thus far, but it’s worth pondering to what extent an improved food environment in academia could do to promote a revised conception of health and wellbeing throughout student communities and beyond.