No stranger to dietary restrictions, Heather Reynolds breaks down how UCD’s lack of awareness alienates students with alternative diets.
Since starting at UCD in September 2016, I’ve spent far more time than most would consider normal or necessary thinking about and examining food options on campus. Between my autoimmune disease preventing me from eating one of the twelve major allergens (gluten), and going vegetarian the summer I finished secondary school, I enter into most public spaces knowing that my food options are going to be limited, especially when it comes to full meals, rather than just sides and snacks. When I started at UCD, I had four meal options available to me; a salad that could only be purchased in the Arts Café, and three sandwich options in the SU shops, two of which were then eliminated from the running because they were meat based. By the time I had written my first article on food inaccessibility on campus in 2019, the salad and one of the two meat based sandwiches were no longer available. Now, in 2021, I managed to not see a single coeliac friendly meal option until just last week, when I spotted a lone chicken salad sandwich in the SU Library shop.
Halal options in particular have been trialed by the SU shops on at least two occasions in the past, and both times a decision was made to not run them long term as they were considered not economically viable
That is not to say that food options on campus have only gotten worse since 2016. Vegetarians have more options on campus than ever, and vegans, who had virtually zero meal options when last I wrote about food accessibility, now have multiple to choose from in the SU shops. However, that doesn’t mean that areas where options have remained thin, or have gotten worse, shouldn’t be highlighted or criticised. There is still a void where halal and kosher options should be, likely for the same reason that they were absent in 2018, and those of us who have limited options in general due to medical necessity have seen our options dwindle down to nothing in recent years.
Halal options in particular have been trialed by the SU shops on at least two occasions in the past, and both times a decision was made to not run them long term as they were considered not economically viable. This was also the thought process behind not including vegan options until its massive rise in popularity increased the call, with their introduction in the 19/20 academic year, and noticeable expansion since the return to campus life.
if you were to fill every seat in Theatre L, you would have at least 5 students who were incapable of sourcing a substantial meal on campus
The issue with this logic, and to give it its credit, the logic is present and understandable, is that unlike the restaurant building, or Centra, the SU shops are not just a business for profits sake. By having the SU name and branding at their core, and putting itself forward as the food venue on campus that keeps students in mind, it gives itself a duty to the student body. By not having meal options available to a substantial number of students, it's failing in that duty, which is to ensure that students are able to eat at the university they are paying to attend. The SU shops acknowledge they have this duty, as can be seen in their constant advertising of the fact that they are the cheapest meal option on campus, knowing that the primary meal accessibility issue for students is the cost of food, but are letting down at bare minimum 1 in 100 students by leaving them without an option at all. (Individuals with Coeliac disease and Muslims each make up slightly over 1% of the population independently) For context, if you were to fill every seat in Theatre L, you would have at least five students who were incapable of sourcing a substantial meal on campus.
Food accessibility may be an issue that feels easy to brush off, especially for those who have never had a dietary restriction, elective or otherwise, but it does remain at its core an accessibility issue. When you’re unable to get a meal at a place where you’re spending the majority of your day, an expectation for full time college students, it adds a lot more work to that day. Two students with the same course load, who stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish the same essay, before the same 10 a.m. lecture, and who both plan to leave campus at 9 p.m. after the same society debate, can have vastly different days in terms of stress and mental capacity based on food accessibility alone.
A student with no dietary requirements can grab a breakfast bar in the SU shop before the lecture, buy a lunch in Pulse in Health Science before going to the library, and then rely on the free pizza after the debate for dinner. A student with dietary requirements has three meals to plan. They might have to choose between making breakfast and making their bus, between travelling off campus to try to find something for lunch or making it at home and missing their lecture, they can’t rely on the debate society pizza being something they can eat. Before their day even starts, they have to do a full day's cooking, and can't decide to stay in late on a whim because it means they have to go hungry.
Obviously, this is a specific scenario. Students aren’t eating three meals a day out of campus shops and restaurants unless they’re rich or on the meal vouchers. But days happen where everything goes wrong regardless of planning and regardless of means, and students should still be able to feed themselves on those days without having to compromise their ethics or their health.
As an ex-society hack with an autoimmune disease, I’ve had dietary options I relied on at events fall through when the single meal option I had in the SU shop was sold out, and I had to make the choice between risking hospitalisation and going hungry. In that situation, your only actual option is going hungry.
When I last wrote an article on food options in UCD, all the way back in the pre-Covid times, I sat down for an interview with the then UCD SU President, who, having been made aware of my autoimmune disease, didn’t wait to be asked before telling me how many great gluten free options the SU offered between the shops and the Clubhouse. This was unfortunate, as everything he told me was incorrect, barring his mention of the two sandwiches that I was already well aware of.
In that situation, your only actual option is going hungry.
Dietary options are about more than a bottom line. They are about creating equal access to public space regardless of ethics, vocation, and health. They are about making sure that the students your organisation is in place to care for have the opportunities to care for themselves. And when it comes to dietary requirements, UCD and the SU have consistently dropped the ball. Until they start prioritising food options as an access issue, it remains just another reminder that while UCD makes its money off the backs of students, it couldn’t give a damn about them.