Student eating habits in UK impacted by increase in university fees

SODEXO ANNOUNCES the findings of its sixth University Lifestyle Survey, the first since the introduction of the new university fee structure.

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The financial pressures resulting from the change in fee structure have not only impacted students’ academic choices but have also resulted in higher concern for value for money in their choice of food. The stereotype of the idealistic student demanding ethical produce is changing, according to the results of the 2014 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey – a representative survey of over 140 universities and 2,000 students throughout the United Kingdom.


As a result of financial concerns, student interest in how food is produced, and the welfare of farm animals, appears to have declined. A minority of students said they expected to see ethically-sourced food used in university-run shops, cafes and restaurants, while even fewer were willing to pay a premium for such items. Just 34 per cent wanted to eat locally-sourced food compared to 51 per cent in 2008. This diminished commitment to ethical products was even more marked when it came to paying extra for them. Only 30 per cent of respondents said they would pay more for Fairtrade products if they were available compared to 57 per cent two years ago.


That trend was also evident for free range produce, for which just 24 per cent of students were willing to pay a premium compared to 59 per cent in 2012, despite numerous high-profile campaigns in this area in recent years. Moreover, the amount of students requiring free range products in restaurants has decreased substantially to 39 per cent, from 63 per cent in 2008. Fewer than one in 10 students (9 per cent) said they would pay more to ensure the meat and other products they ate had a farm-assured kite mark – down from almost half (49 per cent) two years ago, again suggesting budget concerns trump more idealistic ones for today’s students. Sustainable fish produce has also dropped significantly with 20 per cent of students today expecting it, in comparison to 46 per cent in 2008.


As a reflection of the rising fees, price continues to be the leading factor in choosing where to eat, but has decreased in importance in the past two years, with 66 per cent picking this as a key factor when deciding where to buy a meal or snack, dropping since the last survey when 70 per cent cited it as important. Instead, students were more concerned with gaining value for money when purchasing their lunch. Some 47 per cent were concerned by this, up from 34 per cent in 2010 and 45 per cent in 2012, with it now being the second most cited consideration. Price deals on meals were included within the survey for the first time this year with 16 per cent stating they were important. This concern with value was also reflected in students’ preferences on improvements to universities’ campuses, with 28 per cent of students saying they would like to see their catering outlets upgraded.


With today’s students often juggling lessons, private study and part-time work, it is not surprising that some are regularly skipping meals. The survey shows that just over half of students (51 per cent) said they miss at least one meal a week, while one in 10 misses one meal a day during an average week, with 11 per cent skipping in excess of five meals a week.


Healthy eating has become a key part of student lifestyles, and the survey shows that most students (79 per cent) are making an effort to eat healthily, with nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) cooking a meal from scratch using only raw ingredients at least once a week. However, despite increased government efforts to inspire healthy eating habits, 61 per cent of students are careful not to let their desire for healthy food to ‘dictate their life’.


Moreover, cash constraints have affected the eating habits of students, with the impact seen most acutely for those living off campus in rented flats or houses, 57 per cent saying financial hardship had changed their diet. Of those who had changed their diets, about two-thirds (67 per cent) were eating less healthily, up from 62 per cent in 2012. In addition, a worrying divide could be observed in students’ fitness habits, with 45 per cent saying they do no exercise at all, while some 51 per cent said they devote an hour or two in a typical day to sport.


Those in the first year of study were more determined to eat healthy food than those in later years, with 19 per cent saying it was ‘essential’ that they ate healthily compared to 17 per cent of those in the second year or above. International students were most concerned about their diets, with 28 per cent of overseas students saying it was essential for them to eat healthily compared to 16 per cent of UK students.


Peter Taylor, Strategic Development Director at Sodexo, commented: “This year’s survey sees a distinct shift in student attitudes towards their food. In previous surveys there has been a growing desire to eat healthily, and to endeavour to follow ethical principles in the selection of products. This trend has been reversed quite markedly in this year’s report, where price has become king, and value for money the prime motivation when choosing food. This is all the more surprising considering that students now at university have spent their entire school life being made aware of good health and nutrition. The fact that many students are feeling the financial pressure to influence their choices of food would indicate that there is much work to be done to demonstrate that good, nutritious and ethically sourced food need not be the more expensive option.”


Download the full report HERE