What are the real food needs of students?

Why are our food needs ignored by university food outlets?

Photo from University of Sydney Union

A recent questionnaire undertaken by Honi Soit shows that most students feel their dietary needs are somehow ignored by the university. Since, as per the questionnaire, over 90 percent of students rarely or never bring their lunch to university, it is problematic if they cannot find a suitable canteen for meals. The survey received 97 answers, from 55 international students and 42 domestic students. 

Broadway Shopping Centre is students’ first choice for lunch, followed by the Wentworth Building Cafe. The results suggest that these food outlets satisfy the needs of both domestic students and international students thanks to their comfortable surroundings and ambience, menu variety and convenient locations. The Courtyard Cafe ranks as the third most preferred dining place among students. One student told Honi that the price of food at Courtyard is relatively high. However, Courtyard provides the most pleasing environment for students. This student therefore cited Courtyard as his favourite food outlet on campus.

The conflict of customers’ dietary needs and profit is always a problem for the majority of canteen owners. Limited time and reasonable prices are key reasons for which students to choose one restaurant over another. Personalized taste preferences still appear to be the most important factor, even if it means that students may spend more time and money than expected. According to the survey, more than 70% of students prefer to have an authentic Asian menu or a mixed cuisine menu. However, most cafes at the University of Sydney provide European or Western food only.

An international student studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Law, told Honi Soit that he thinks Little Asia, located in the Wentworth Building food court, seems to have big troubles with providing food of good quality. “The taste of food provided by Little Asia doesn’t meet its higher price. Food there is extremely oily from my own perspective. I strongly recommend a new canteen business on campus starting from next semester. It deserves to have a better Asian restaurant which can replace Little Asia.” Other students made different comments about Little Asia. They feel lucky to have an Asian food outlet with good prices. For most international students, Little Asia is the place where they find Asian food. At present, the number of canteens providing Asian food or mixed food are still quite limited.

Another example is that, there was an improvement of the menu in the Abercrombie Business School Cafe when Koko Kong served as the first international student USU Border Director. Ginger fish matched with rice as well as other western food are all fairly popular meals among students now. This is a successful business model. The rising influence of Chinese students in student politics has also brought changes to the food outlet menus on campus, which demonstrates that the influence on food of an interest group can be strengthened through student politics.

Surprisingly, fast food is shown to be accepted by around 90 percent of students. A large portion of students support having McDonalds or KFC on campus. Many students choose to control their intake of fast food to remain healthy and limit weight gain. But they are willing to accept fast food if there are no other choices. The attitudes towards junk food probably suggest that functions of food are not just nutrition. On the one hand, the result might suggest conscious choice and a high metabolism as indicators of fast food behaviour. Attitudes, perceived self-behavioural regulation and self-identity as a fast food eater are possible predictors of intention to eat fast food. It may relate to peer pressure and the fast pacing of university life, which forces students to save time and money. On the other hand,  although abundant evidence shows that a large number of people make unhealthy food choices worldwide, even those who are capable of accessing and purchasing healthy food, since human beings are naturally attracted to sweet tastes, heavy salty tastes and high calorie intake.

The research shows that food choice is closely related to a student’s cultural background. Over 70% of respondents express preferences for hometown flavours. The potential reason is the special social roles of food playing in people’s daily life, especially for international students or minorities. Ethnic identity can be maintained through assimilated dietary habits. A student being granted permanent residency in Australia provides a new angle for us: “I first came to Australia when I was 12 years old. I got used to the food in Australia as time passed by. I began to feel excited about the diverse choices offered by this multicultural country. It is a pleasure for me to explore new cuisines. I think it will be the same for other international students or domestic students to see new restaurants or new menus on campus. When you constantly eat western food everyday,  that special taste of home and the happiness of sharing diverse foods with friends may not exist anymore. More seriously, a gap may appear between an individual and whole family at home in a sense that things matter to them might no longer be relevant to you.”  She also emphasises that having cross-cultural eating will not weaken national identity. The result suggests that multi-cultural and multi-dimensional menus seems to be necessary for our university canteens.

With multiculturalism on campus thriving, providing more diverse food types may be a wise choice for the university. For restaurant operators, it would be a wise decision to embrace multicultural menus to augment profits and customer satisfaction. In addition, the social constructions mutual communication and the diet attitudes and beliefs of consumers decides the form of the food consumed.