Mould, hairs and plastic: St Aidan’s students suffer “abysmal” reheated catering

By and

Since the beginning of Epiphany term, students at St Aidan’s College have complained about the “abysmal” food quality being served to students living in college. There have been college-wide complaints with students finding mould, hairs and plastic served within their food.

The University has said this is due to the construction of a new kitchen – students are expected to be served reheated food from Hild Bede College and Lindisfarne until at least the end of Epiphany but most likely longer.

Students claim they were not appropriately informed about the University’s plans to provide reheated food. Aidan’s students claim the first time they were formally told about the new arrangement was in a St Aidan’s wide email sent on 8th January, a day before Epiphany term and the new food arrangement began.

In the email, Susan Frenk, St Aidan’s College Principal addresses students saying: “While the project leader, Paul Taylor, and University Executive Chef, Michael Thorne, have assured us that the arrangements should run smoothly, the trial run is today and we ask you to be patient and understanding if there are any problems. 

“The food is being prepared in the Hild Bede kitchen, transported to the Lindisfarne Centre (which has been requisitioned as a temporary kitchen to reheat the food) and then transported to the concrete area outside the Dining Hall. It is then brought inside in specialist trolleys to the servery. Used crockery will be taken offsite after each service to be washed in the service kitchen in the Snow-South hub.”

Starting January 21st, St Aidan’s students organised an open letter to the University’s Executive Committee that since has amassed 109 St Aidan’s student signatures as well as the support of: Dan Lonsdale, President, Durham Working Class Students Association; Halle Afflick, President, 93% Club Durham; Don Brooks, President, Durham Tenants Association; St Aidan’s First Generation Scholars; Joe Eaton, President, St Aidan’s JCR; All Executive Members, St Aidan’s JCR as of Monday 6th February. 

“We ask you to be patient and understanding if there any problems”

In the open letter, students criticise the University’s lack of quality of catered food, the mental toll from the current catering arrangement, concern regarding increased discourse surrounding eating disorders, socio-economic divisions between students who are able to afford external takeaway meals. Students also had concerns regarding the environmental impact of the new catering arrangement, the feeling of St Aidan’s as a college becoming sidelined and marginalised compared to other colleges, as well as no monetary compensation for the reduced quality of catering.

Four demands were outlined clearly in the open letter:

  • We would like for ‘Livers in’ to be compensated £1000 for the loss of quality of our catering, including mouldy and inedible food, and also to offset some of the additional food shops many students are now forced into spending as they can no longer eat college food. We recommend extra financial support for those who receive the Durham Grant.
  • A set deadline as to when our kitchen will be back to normal, and promises for additional compensation should this deadline not be met.
  • A timeline in which we will see refurbishments of college accommodation. Feeling the impact of work being done on our kitchen, for the benefit of other colleges, whilst we ourselves are living in run-down accommodation is unfair, demoralising, and reinforces the idea that Aidan’s is a college not valued by the University.
  • Somebody from the UEC to come down to the JCR to listen to our concerns and explain why Aidan’s was decided as the college to be co-opted into a project for the betterment of self-catered colleges.

The open letter is signed off saying, “We understand that many of the points in this letter may have never been considered during planning projects. However, you can no longer hide behind naivety. We have provided clear evidence as to the mental, physical and communal detriment of this project. You must act accordingly.”

We understand that many of the points in this letter may never been considered

On 27th January, the co-organisers of the open letter received a response from Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience). In the letter, Cook writes that “As you know, a Central Production Kitchen is required to provide formal and event catering for self-catered colleges. In recent years, the number of self-catered colleges in Durham City has increased in response to student demand for self-catered accommodation, and this is likely to continue. St Aidan’s College was chosen as the most suitable site following careful deliberation, in the course of which views of college management teams were sought and heard. I would ask all students to bear with us through the period of building works.

“The University has rigorous protocols in place for its senior catering staff to manage specific incidents around food safety. The first step should always be to report any concerns in relation to food safety to your college’s catering team, who will initiate the investigation procedure.  

“The revised production method does restrict a very small number of food options, primarily fried food. But I can assure you that, although some fried items have been replaced or substituted with oven-baked alternatives, the menu remains overwhelmingly the same as was provided in Term One. “

Liv Eren, one of the organisers of the open letter and St Aidan’s student, described the response from the Pro Vice Chancellor as “meagre” and “it doesn’t really address our concerns, if anything it blames us for being so upset about it”. She also argues that asking for £1000 compensation per student for the poor food quality is a fair ask considering the University is spending “huge sums of money on expansion and other projects”.

you can no longer hide behind naivety”

She described having personal experiences of mouldy bread and said she was only eating 30% of the food due to its poor quality. She said the food quality is “so bad, you just become desensitised”.

She questioned the University’s decisions saying “Why on earth are we transporting Aidan’s food around Durham (when the central production kitchen is made) when you’ve already established that you have a spare kitchen in Hild Bede why are we suffering, eating meagre meals everyday for other colleges benefit?”

She describes a divide between students who can afford to buy their own food and others in the flat having to eat “ridiculous, random assorted food from college” which has creates high tension in the flat and is upsetting for students.

Students have expressed issues with the food triggering disabilities. One of the students who signed the letter said “the food changes have affected me quite a lot. I have an autoimmune condition which limits swallowing, meaning it’s important that the food quality is good. In recent weeks I’ve found myself skipping meals due to being anxious about the food triggering symptoms. I’ve experienced meals which are generally bad quality, reheated, and unappealing, such as the photo where we were trying to figure out what it actually was.”

Other students have referenced eating disorders as students are no longer willing to risk eating from college for their own health, others spoke about the difficulties in logistically receiving food they have paid for. A student said “Since our food is being transported from Hild Bede, we also need to sign up for packed lunches by breakfast two days before the afternoon we need it, compared to before when we could sign up the morning of, which is usually impossible due to timetables changing and other commitments clashing.

One of the students who signed the letter said ” It is simply atrocious; livers-in, mostly first years who are away from home for the first time, must pay the price for someone else’s luxury. From hair to mould in their food, affecting not only their physical but also mental health, students had to resort to cooking in their kitchen, which is inadequate as Aidan’s is not a non-catered college, thus does not have the right facilities for.”

The food is so bad “you become desensitised”

A St Aidan’s JCR exec member told Palatinate about “habitual side-lining of the college [by the University]” – they said “‘This college, I feel, is where they often put people who are not fitting into the conventional idea of what a Durham student is and it really plays into problems with classism and elitism’. The student expressed concern that the communal beer garden space had been built over in order to make way for CPK and the University’s Executive Committee showing little respect for student’s spaces in college.

Students raised serious concerns about the environmental impact of transporting the food across the city. A member of St Aidan’s College Eco Society estimates that “1000 plastic cups per day minimum are being used” as well as the plastic in individual sauce, salt & pepper and yoghurt pots has a large environmental impact. They also brought up concerns about the environmental cost of reheating the food once it has travelled to St Aidan’s. There were further concerns about the cost of them transporting the cutlery and dishware to South/John Snow in order to be cleaned too.”

St Aidan’s JCR president, Joe Eaton said: “It’s clear that for some people living in college at Durham University is looking less and less attractive. To be clear though, this is in no way the fault of the amazing catering and servery staff at our college. This isn’t their doing, it’s the doing of a flawed, wreckless and over budget university infrastructure policy that has consistently over looked the needs of both the students and the college. As a student leader, I will always support, at any opportunity, students standing up for something they believe in.”

Former St Aidan’s College JCR president and current Durham SU president Joe McGarry said “Students pay extremely high fees, and also have to put up with very low standards. The college staff and student reps raised concerns repeatedly about the implementation of the CPK, and we’ve seen the hard work the servery staff and chefs are doing in the kitchens in Aidan’s, but the poor project management is something even they can’t overcome without support.”

habitual side-lining of the college [by the University]”

Laura Curran, Durham SU’s Welfare and Liberation officer said, “This is not the first time that changes in catering have impacted students in terms of finances, physical health, and mental health. When catering became centralised in 2019/20, students saw a significant decline in the quality of the food. Inadequate portion sizes and improperly cooked food saw students left hungry after meals or reluctant to eat them at all. The issues outlined in the St. Aidan’s Open Letter, including working-class students unable to constantly purchase takeaways and the normalisation of weight loss in conversations, have all appeared before. University management saw the consequences of major changes in catering back in 2019, so the fact that these issues have resurfaced despite this prior knowledge is, to me, inexcusable.”

Palatinate asked the University for comment regarding the claims – in response, the University provided the letter from Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor which was sent to the open letter organisers on 27th January. The letter states “we’re committed to providing a quality student experience to all our students’ adding ‘our catering is delivered to the highest industry standards.

“St Aidan’s College was chosen as the most suitable site [for the CPK] following careful deliberation, in the course of which the views of college management teams were sought and heard. I would ask all students to bear with us through the period of building works.”

In response to allegations made about food standards being lower for Aidan’s students the letter states: “I can reassure students that the methods of food preparation and delivery in use at the current time at St Aidan’s College are an industry standard, used in a wide range of hospitality environments in the catering industry and across a number of colleges at Durham throughout the last decade. The proposed arrangements for St Aidan’s College were discussed prior to implementation with Durham County Council’s environmental health team, who were satisfied with our well-established processes for managing food safety.”

The letter does acknowledge that the building work has limited the food Aidan’s students are given, but states this has only affected a “very small number of food options, primarily fried food” which has been “replaced or substituted with oven-baked alternatives”. 

“We’re committed to providing a quality student experience”

The letter further states that “within the planning of this temporary service, we carefully considered any additional workload which would be created for our staff. Aspects of the catering workload, for example logistics, have indeed increased; however, we have enhanced our staffing levels in response to support the delivery of these tasks.

“We share students’ concerns around mental health issues connected to food, and around the cost of living, which affect students across the University. There are extensive support mechanisms in place. We would urge students affected by either of these issues to seek support from their College, from the Counselling and Mental Health Service or from the Student Money Advice service as appropriate. The University takes the mental health of its students very seriously and is currently working towards achieving the University Mental Health Charter. We have this year also invested significantly in the Durham Grant Scheme in response to the cost-of-living crisis. More information on this and other initiatives introduced to support students is available at our Cost-of-Living Hub.  

“We are also determined to reduce further the University’s environmental impact; as one example, we will be providing a reusable water bottle to every student in catered accommodation at St Aidan’s College, considerably reducing the need for single-use plastics during this period of development works. Our recently appointed food supply partner, Foodbuy, are committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. 

“The University is investing over £100m in a residential refurbishment programme to improve the quality of college accommodation over this decade.”

Palatinate contacted Durham County Council for comment on the allegations as well. The Head of Community Protection Joanne Waller responded to the allegations made about catering at Aidan’s. “We were contacted by the university’s health and safety team to inform us of the planned kitchen works at St Aidan’s and the intention to temporarily supply meals which had been cooked and blast chilled. Cook-chill systems are a safe method providing that appropriate control measures are put in place by the food provider.

“Food safety management systems do not need official approval from the council. However, food business operators have a responsibility to prepare and implement these measures and we do check these are in place during our routine hygiene inspections.”

Image: Liv Eren

One thought on “Mould, hairs and plastic: St Aidan’s students suffer “abysmal” reheated catering

  • As an outsider, it would appear to me that Durham students arent use to normal fayre.
    Again, as an outsider, just what on earth is going on with the overall management of Durham Uni? It seems to be in utter turmoil everywhere you look. I wouldnt entertain going there …way better unis, with better nightlife , better shoppingetc.
    It.s a real shame …


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