College catering options reduce in variety and quality, students say

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despite paying almost £275 more for catering costs, students living in catered college accommodation have claimed to have seen a decrease in the quality and quantity of food provided.

Last year, Durham University announced the biggest increase in accommodation prices in the last decade, with prices increasing by 10.3%. The 39-week contract for a standard catered room with shared bathroom is now £9,156, an increase from £8,301 in 2022/23.

With a catering charge of £2,760, students are now paying an average of £4.38 per meal, an increase from £3.95 per meal last year.

Despite the increased price, cuts have been made in the central catering menus for students at catered colleges. These cuts have included: desserts being moved from every day to once a week, sandwich options being removed at lunches, reduced salad bar options, and reduced breakfast options.

In a statement to Palatinate Durham University said “Like all food providers, our colleges have been impacted by increases in food and energy prices. We have worked hard to absorb this and have kept increases in catering fees below the Consumer Price Index (CPI) food inflation rate, which currently stands at 12.1%.

“Costs for catering not only include food, but also energy, staffing, and equipment and maintenance”.

Students are paying £92 a week in catering costs, working out as £4.38 per meal

Returning students who are living in catered colleges again in 2023/24 after living out in previous years have expressed their disappointment to Palatinate: “Livers-in are paying more this year for noticeably worse catering,” one claimed.

The student said that they were particularly disappointed by a “notably stripped back salad bar” and “certain foods that quickly run out”.

On their website, the University says that catered menus “have variety, balance and reflect the Food Standard Agency’s ‘Eat Well Guide’, therefore enabling students, staff and visitors to choose a healthy, varied and balanced diet.”

Another student described the food as “objectively bad”, stating that the variety was incredibly limited for those with dietary requirements.

One third-year student said that “the vegetarian meals often feel like an afterthought and are often of a lower quality than the main meals. The options on the salad bar have been reduced and the quality of the fruit is almost always pretty bad.

“Considering the price per meal has gone up, it’s not worth the money at all,” they continued, stating that they only returned to College because of a housing contract falling through, and did not originally budget for catered costs.

In response to concerns about food quality, the University said that, ““Our menus provide students with a choice of hot and cold options across the day, along with the availability of fresh fruit at every meal and additional items such as barista coffee at breakfast”.

They went on to say “Food is prepared onsite using predominantly fresh, unprocessed ingredients, with seasonal meals where possible, and we work hard to cater for special dietary requirements.”

Dan Lonsdale, President for Durham Students’ Union, said that this situation demonstrated a “particular concern considering the housing landscape in Durham, and the role of the University within it.” Students allocated to catered colleges cannot rent self-catered accommodation owned by the University, and therefore must pay the £2,760 catering charge if they wish to return to college.

“Livers-in are paying more this year for noticeably worse catering”

Other catered Universities in the North charge far less for a catered room: the University of York’s most expensive catered room, an ensuite at James College, costs £8,960 for 40 weeks for 2023/24. The cheapest catered room at York’s university-owned accommodation is £5,720, cheaper than a standard self-catered room at Durham.

Similarly, Newcastle University offers a catering package of £1,548.45 at its Castle Leazes accommodation block, costing a total of £5,273.38 for a standard catered room.

The University responded to this claim by saying, “Comparisons with catered accommodation costs at other universities are also not accurate as most do not provide the same number of meals within their fully catered accommodation offer”.

Students at Trevelyan College were being served hash browns as the only side dish option on the first night of Freshers’ Week due to the kitchen being unable to keep up with the rush of students. One returner explained to Palatinate that: “I’ve noticed a decline in people’s welfare over college foods, especially since hash browns are being used as dinner side dishes as they keep running out of food.”

“We review our catering package each academic year to ensure our menus offer a healthy, varied and balanced diet”

Durham University

The topic was raised at Trevelyan College’s first Junior Common Room (JCR) Meeting of the year, where students expressed their disappointment for the reduced options, and the increasingly frequent occurrences where the kitchen would run out of food items.

Dan Lonsdale, President of Durham Students’ Union, told Palatinate that: “Students pay an extortionate amount to live-in and seem to receive less and less for that price as the years go by. The University must provide a breakdown of where students’ money is going.

“The University has an unspoken but very real monopoly on first-year students who, instead of being exploited by other landlords, are exploited by the University instead.

“But what of returning students who are caught in the turbulence of a housing market as chaotic and increasingly unaffordable as Durham’s who have to turn to their college? Instead of being punished by one landlord, they are punished by another.”

“We would encourage students to engage constructively with their college on any feedback regarding catering”

Durham University

A Durham University spokesperson said: “We review our catering package each academic year to ensure our menus offer a healthy, varied and balanced diet, whilst continuing to provide a fully catered service that is excellent value for money within a competitive budget.

“Food waste is also an important issue, as part of our overall commitment to improving sustainability, and we are working with our colleges to reduce waste. There is a role for the full college community to help reduce the amount of food that is served but goes uneaten.

“We would encourage students to engage constructively with their college on any feedback regarding catering. All JCRs should know who their college Food and Beverage Manager, and Head Chef are. They can be approached with any questions or comments.”

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2 thoughts on “College catering options reduce in variety and quality, students say

  • Compared to a Cambridge such as Sidney Sussex college where the average meal cost is £6.25, Durham looks cheap.

    The Castle Leazes and York comparison is only for breakfast and evening meal monday to friday. Durham is 3 meals 7 days a week…this does feel like lazy reporting…

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