It’s a dire day to have accidentally left your lunch at home. In the hot food stand at Vicky’s, the remains of what is allegedly beef goulash lie in one container. Dry-looking rice is in another, and in the last stainless steel container is pasta in a creamy yellowish sauce with mushrooms and silverbeet. For a few moments I hesitate, trying to decide which is the least of these evils. I pick the pasta.
We all complain about the quality and price of the food on campus, but are we just a bunch of ungrateful whiners? To find out, I spent a week sampling a range of food at Vicky’s and Illot cafes. The food at the Kelburn campus is a captive market: unless you want to walk for fifteen minutes, eating on campus is the only option. Within that market, Vicky’s and Illot have most of the customers mopped up – so, for the purposes of this story, Salient asked the management of both cafés to provide nutritional information for their most popular dishes.
But, back to the pasta. While the amount of food I was given was pretty good for my $5.60 investment – so much so that in an attempt to finish it all I felt ill for the rest of the afternoon – I’ve had better food on a plane. Seriously. I sit down at a table with a VUWSA staff member who, like myself, is warily eyeing up the contents of the plastic box in front of him. When I ask him what he thinks of the quality, he begins an obscenity-filled and possibly defamatory rant.
“I think the food down there is shite, utter shite. Especially the cooked food. The sandwiches, well, they’ve been stale in the past. It’s not brain food.”
Vicky’s, the vegetarian café below it, and the staff café are all owned by an international company called Eurest. Operating in around eighty countries around the world, Eurest provides food for the defence forces, several universities, and selected secondary schools.
For Head Chief Jeffrey Craanen and Manager Angelia Beamsley, running a student-focussed cafe is a balance between providing cheap and nutritional food. “We’ve got to have a certain percentage of things on the menu that are healthy,” says Craanen. What that percentage is, neither could tell me, but what it means is that there is a healthy option – based on the fat and sugar content – for hot food and sandwiches (so whether it comes with mayonnaise and spread), and salads and fresh fruit available.
Lardolicious: According to the experts again, fast food has a very high fat content. An average serving of fish and chips has ten teaspoons of fat, as does a burger and fries. On the upside, meat pies have slightly less fat – about seven teaspoons (for more on pies, see the cover story on page 16). If you want to eat healthy, sushi is probably your best bet, with only one-tenth of a teaspoon of fat for two pieces.
While they were also unable to supply nutritional information for their most popular food, they provided a list of ingredients for sandwiches, rolls and wraps – all of which appear reasonably healthy. Pointing to a poster on the wall and to cardboard displays on every table, they attempt to reassure me that despite being one of those evil corporations, Eurest cares about the well-being of its customers.
But here’s where they run into an obstacle: students of shit food. While around 250 sandwiches will be made each week, Beamsley says that on an average day “without a doubt, from the 11 through to 3 o’clock, we’ll sell one hundred and twenty-six burgers.” The difference in nutritional value is, at least according to the Nutrition and Physical Activity Team of the Hutt Valley District Health Board, that a burger and fries contains around 10 teaspoons of fat, and a sandwich – with meat – just two teaspoons.
However, a resident dietician at Student Health, Julia Clark, says it’s all about balance. Making sure you eat food from all the food groups and getting a fair share of fruit and vegetables is a big part of that. Clark was unable to pass judgement on the campus food, but she did say that it would be positive if the healthy food options were cheaper than their more artery-clogging counterparts.
But Craanen is angered when I put it to him that the food at the café is too expensive. “Knowing the students – I’ve been here the last six and a half years – and reading Salient, every year they complain about something. I actually don’t think it’s that bad. If I look at the money we’re making out of this business, we’re working very hard for every frickin cent we get out of this cafe, and I’m not kidding here. I get frustrated with it.”
“It’s not our fault that [students] don’t have a lot of money,” he adds.
During the second half of my week-long campus food binge, Illot was my target. While the range of sandwiches and rolls are generally pretty good, the hot food didn’t look all that appealing – although there was a slightly wider range than offered by Vicky’s. It was a vegetarian’s worst nightmare: all cheap cuts of meat in unidentifiable sauces. I had the choice of meatballs, sliced sausages cooked with vegetables, and some form of chicken (bones in) and potato curry.
Usually, faced with such a spread I would have chosen to go hungry. But in the spirit of investigative journalism I had to make a choice. I chose the meatballs.
While one of the said meatballs was quickly on a trajectory into the rubbish bin after I bit on a piece of gristle, in general – despite the disgusted noises of certain vegetarian colleagues in the office – it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but it was, well, edible.
Illot Manager Gino Sue almost completely failed to comply with Salient’s request for information, saying via email: “I don’t have a full nutritional breakdown on the composition of the food we sell. Most of what we sell has been put on hold due to the low sales over the break. But I do have what goes into the food we sell.” Follow-up phone calls went unanswered.
Students, however, had very few good things to say about Illot. “I just bring lunch from home,” says one student I talked to. “There is good food,” she continued, “but it’s all overpriced.” She also complained about the “grubby” tables. Another was much more scathing: “It’s all the same and it’s all overpriced. Yesterday my friend bought chips that were more liquid than solid. They were cooked to the point where they were swimming around in their own juice. They actually stooped to new depths of revulsion.”
“If they’re not going to be cheaper than downtown cafés, then they have to match them on some other things: service, cleanliness, quality, and not stinking like shit.”
Because they’re operating in a market with little competition from outside providers, however, cafés on campus can do just that. Essentially they can charge as much as they like, and provide low quality and unhealthy food – as long as it doesn’t break any food standard laws. While according to the University, the contracts to provide campus food are licensed on the basis of the quality of the services they provide, in reality, that doesn’t seem to be a very high standard.
So, while it isn’t great for you, eating food on campus is probably not going to kill you. Unless you choke on a meatball.
Fun for your tummy and your wallet?
How do the prices at Vicky’s and Illot stack up with prices on other campuses around the country? We compared the prices of coffee, hot food, and sandwiches with the food on three other campuses and found that, surprisingly, Victoria prices were about average.
Coffee — around $3.00
Hot food — between $5.60 and $6.60
Sandwiches — around the $3.50–$4.50 mark
Coffee — around $3.00
Hot food — between $5.00 and $8.00
Sandwiches — $3.50
Tussock (Massey Wellington)
Coffee — $3.00
Hot food — between $6.50 and $9.50
Sandwiches — $3.70
Coffee — $3.50
Hot food — $7 at cafeterias, $9–11 at the bar
Sandwiches — $4.50
Coffee — $3.00 to $3.50
Hot food — $4.00 to $7.00
Sandwiches — $4.00 to $6.00