x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Campus food leaves bitter taste

University students call for better, cheaper menus.

The Paris Sorbonne campus on Al Reem Island, Abu Dhabi, is just one of several university canteens whose food quality and variety have been questioned by students and other consumers. Delores Johnson / The National
The Paris Sorbonne campus on Al Reem Island, Abu Dhabi, is just one of several university canteens whose food quality and variety have been questioned by students and other consumers. Delores Johnson / The National

ABU DHABI // University students are complaining that the only food available on campuses is unhealthy and expensive.

The results of a survey by the American University of Dubai (AUD) student council showed students wanted better salads, more vegetarian main meals and less fried food.

"If the healthy food on offer was better, more people would opt for it," said Philip Apaza, 22, the president of the student council.

Naz Naddaf, a graphic design student and the head of the student council for peer health education, said students and the university needed to play a role in drumming home the importance of nutrition.

The group is trying to achieve that through conferences and seminars.

"It's about reaching out to the student body through our friends," Ms Naddaf said.

There are some salads and fruit on offer in the university canteen but it is not good enough, said Mr Apaza, a third-year economics and Middle-East studies student.

"You can have a salad but the dressing's already on it or you can go to the food court and get a baked potato, but they put so much butter on it that it's no longer a healthy option," he said. "Plus you pay more for eating outside the canteen. The cheaper options are always the unhealthy ones."

Many students eat all of their meals on campus, especially those who live on campus or commute from further away, said Ms Naddaf. A hot meal costs about Dh17 while a salad starts at Dh8.

And the problem is not unique to AUD. Rania Abdulla has just graduated in medicine at the University of Sharjah. Ms Abdulla lived on campus and paid between Dh150 and Dh170 a week for food.

With days that lasted between 16 and 18 hours, she had no time to cook for herself and found it all but impossible to eat healthily.

"All the food, on campus or delivered, is very junkie, containing a lot of fat and carbohydrates," Ms Abdulla, 23, said. "Living in dorms, you're really stuck with what's available.

"They [universities] don't realise that health effects start young. College is a very good opportunity to teach people the importance of eating healthily. It's the right age to do this."

Fatima Azahra Jamal, 18, is a student at Paris Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi. The Moroccan lives on campus and spends about Dh150 a week on lunches in the canteen.

"At night I cook my own food because I spend a lot of money on food here," Ms Jamal said. "After six months, I am already sick of the food. It's the same every day and the healthy options never change."

Sophia Tabi, 19, is happy with the variety and quality in the canteen, but finds the hot food expensive.

Although the hot meal of the day and a drink costs only Dh15, a steak and chips is Dh24 and pizza about Dh22.

"We're on an island; it's not like we can go and eat elsewhere," Ms Tabi said. "Eating here every day gets boring."

Sharjah's Higher Colleges of Technology works closely with its caterers to ensure its food is good quality and reasonably priced.

One of five hot meals on offer and a green salad costs no more than Dh15, which the college director, Farid Ohan, said was within the means of most students.

Mr Ohan said price was a common complaint but financial help was available for those who needed it.

Franky Barreto, the student services manager at the University of Wollongong, one of Dubai's largest, said its students were restricted to the food court at Knowledge Village.

While that kept many students happy, Mr Barreto said there should be more healthy options.

Students at one of the many tertiary schools in the free zone - spending all day on campuses such as Middlesex University and Wollongong - must either eat junk food on site, bring in their own lunch or go off campus to eat.

Lateefa Al Mazrouei, 22, graduated last year from Zayed University. A nutritionist, Ms Al Mazrouei is critical of her alma mater's food.

"Zayed University didn't really care about promoting healthy eating," she said. "They offered things like fruits and yogurt but it was more about appealing to students, who prefer junk food."

Now working for Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, Ms Al Mazrouei said she would like more high-profile media campaigns.

"We need awareness for the masses," she said. "Schools and universities do have a role to play but the programmes I've seen in a couple of schools aren't enough."