A couple come into the Leeuwenborch canteen at lunchtime, armed with shopping bags. They sit down and start to unpack, spreading the table with baguettes, foie gras, pre-packed salads, apples and French cheese. Benoit and his girlfriend Ann-Sophie are working on their thesis in France, and are on a short visit Wageningen to meet with their supervisors. When asked why they have brought all this food from their home country they reply: ‘The food in the canteen is too expensive, and not that good for the price.’
Maria, a Costa Rican girl, thinks the food is not very balanced. ‘The food is too expensive and not very healthy. In my opinion, most of it is too starchy and greasy. I would really prefer to eat more chicken, but they only offer soups, sandwiches and hot snacks, most of which are fried. But of course this is a matter of culture; Dutch people only eat a light meal at lunch time.’
‘I like the canteen, and the food they offer,’ comments Peter, a Dutch student in the canteen, as a discussion arises among international students about the quality and the value for money of the food on their trays. ‘It’s tasty and enough for me at lunch time. I don’t want a lot to eat, because I bring my own sandwiches with me.’
The group at the table also includes nutrition students, and it strikes them as odd that the WUR, a world leader when it comes to research on nutrition, offers such unhealthy food to their researchers and students. ‘It’s not the fault of the catering service: they only offer what they are asked for,’ says Ann-Sophie the self-catering French girl. Benoit counters: ‘But in a university where many researchers are trying to improve food and steer consumer behaviour in a more healthy direction, the kind of meals they provide seems a little bit strange.’
‘In Costa Rica, lunch is the main meal of the day, so it is difficult to compare with what’s on offer here,’ Maria explains. ‘But the canteen at my old university offers more variety and better quality. You can have a healthy meal that includes rice or potatoes, meat like beef, chicken, pork or fish, vegetables, salad and dessert.’
In France, a country famous for its ‘cuisine’, the university that Benoit and Ann-Sophie attend offers meals comparable to what you’d get in a restaurant, they say. ‘We eat a hot meal at lunch time and for dinner, so the canteen has real meals. You can choose between lots of starters, main dishes with a wide choice of vegetables, and desserts.’
This variety can only be provided because the government subsidises the food in both countries. You can get a full student meal in France and in Costa Rica together with a drink for 3.50 euros. But on the other hand, the students reflect, in neither country do they have the opportunity to laugh as new international students grimace after their first bite into a ‘disgusting’ croquette without mustard to disguise its blandness.