“The first step in a long struggle”: in conversation with the two-pound meal deal campaigners
On 2 November 2022, the University launched a two-pound hot meal deal following a successful student campaign demanding cheaper food on campus.
A two-pound hot meal deal is currently being trialled on the second floor of Devonshire House on Streatham campus. A dish of the day is served from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. every weekday. Exeposé spoke to Emma de Saram, VP Liberation and Equality, Berni Kotełko and Jakob Habsburg who worked on the project.
Exeposé: How did the campaign start? Was there a catalyst for action?
Emma de Saram: Everyone knows that food on campus is expensive, but no one knows how to change it. I particularly wanted to use my role as VP to make positive changes happen. We initially wanted to do a three-pound meal deal campaign, but thought no, we need to be more ambitious! We’re doing this because we are genuinely passionate about it. We have set up an open group chat which currently has around 20 members and try to have weekly meetings to discuss ideas.
Jakob Habsburg: I was looking at it from the perspective of someone who had just moved out of catered halls. It’s only now that I realise how expensive food on campus and in town is.
É: How have students reacted to your campaign?
Berni Kotełko: We stood in the Forum for about four to five hours during rush hour and we received overwhelmingly positive responses. Everyone that engaged with us seemed very passionate and thought that our campaign was a good idea. We gained about 400 signatures in a single afternoon.
We want this to be representative of the student body and inclusive of people’s opinions, hence why we have an open group chat as Emma mentioned. The cost of food on campus affects everyone: even if you have the facilities and time to meal prep at home, there will be days when you’ll forget or won’t have the time. Students who don’t come to campus frequently have also expressed their support.
É: Are you planning on implementing the meal deal on the St Luke’s and Penryn campuses?
EdS: Our campaigning is definitely applicable to all campuses. We’re using the trial on Streatham to gather feedback and learn how to implement it elsewhere as well. Cross Keys on St Luke’s campus could be a potential venue for the scheme. My role as VP Liberation and Equality also means that I have regular catch-ups with Penryn’s Students’ Union, so they are being kept in the loop.
É: How does the two-pound meal deal tie in with helping students cope with the cost-of-living crisis? The campaign’s Instagram account mentions that “affordable transport on campus has got worse”. Could you elaborate on this?
BK: Energy bills are going up and maintenance loans haven’t changed at all. A lot of students are struggling right now and that number is, unfortunately, going to keep growing, especially as the nights draw in and the weather gets colder. We recognise that the University takes time to respond, but the cost-of-living crisis is something that students need immediate help with.
EdS: Regarding transport, there’s supposed to be a bus between the Streatham and St Luke’s campuses, which we’re told is still running. Anecdotally, though, we’ve been told by many students that it’s completely unreliable. The Unirider bus pass is currently £276, which is unaffordable for many.
BK: Because of the increasing price of rent, fewer students will be able to live close to campus and next year more students will probably have to commute. Luckily, Exeter is a fairly walkable city, but this also brings up issues about accessibility because of the hills. Commuting takes away time that students could be spending on their hobbies, studying, sleep or self-care, which further impacts their welfare.
JH: It’s particularly frustrating, as it’s the students who are the most engaged with university life that seem to be punished the most. They go to their lectures and spend time in the library, but then don’t have time to meal prep and can’t avoid the extortionate food prices on campus.
É: What further changes in campus food outlets would you like to see?
EdS: Winning this campaign shows that if the University prioritises students and affordable, nutritious meals, then change is possible. The University has quite a lot of local suppliers and they can reduce the price of food with immediate effect if they choose to. Furthermore, having a Starbucks open up while other universities are setting up food banks really doesn’t look great.
Long-term, there needs to be a massive change in how food on campus is offered. At the moment, it feels like profit over nutritional value. The Market Place meal deals are not sustainable, as food options are wrapped in plastic or excessive packaging. Our demands included reducing the prices of the Market Place, which has a higher profit margin than other high-street supermarkets.
BK: There is a huge lack of vegetarian and vegan options on campus, and what is available runs out very fast and is too expensive. Increasing these would appeal to both students and the University on a price level because of how much cheaper the ingredients are, but also simply offers students more choice.
É: Do you think that the University is offering enough support for students during the cost-of-living crisis?
BK: I have friends who are on incredibly tight margins – they spend all day on campus to study because their degree is so demanding, but then can’t afford to buy food. It’s particularly frustrating, as we see the University raking in money and spending it on a rebrand that wasn’t exactly voted for.
Most people leave university in debt. This is only being exacerbated by our University, which should be helping students, but ends up profiting off them and essentially exploiting them for money as they have a monopoly on commercial outlets on campus.
JH: The marketing campaign ultimately shows that the University has money to burn. The University sadly seems to prioritise third parties such as donors and potential students, rather than helping their current students who are struggling.
É: What’s next for your campaign and how can students get involved?
EdS. We need to tackle the gaping wealth inequalities at our University. These begin as soon as you pick your first-year accommodation, and whether you can afford Holland Hall or Old Lafrowda. This is unfortunately just replicating itself in outlets on campus, and whether you can afford to buy food there or not.
Something I’ve also been looking at recently is laundry prices. The cost for first-years to have clean clothes is so expensive. We want to work on improving students’ day-to-day lives and their material conditions like food and housing.
The meal deal campaign is the first step in a long struggle to revive student activism as a whole. We hope to have shown students that we do have power and that by working collectively we can make a difference.
BK: It’s really easy for students to get involved. Do follow us on social media and join our group chat; students aren’t bound to anything and are welcome to attend a meeting simply to listen in if they’re interested.
When asked about the two-pound meal deal and concerns about food prices on campus, a University spokesperson told Exeposé that “we understand that the cost-of-living crisis is a significant concern for everyone. The University has introduced a significant number of initiatives in order to support students, including ensuring a range of affordable, everyday household staples across campus. Additionally, we have introduced a large number of promotional low-cost products, and affordable hot and cold food items, in our outlets. In conjunction with the Students’ Guild, the University has also reopened and subsidized a central location on the Streatham Campus which provides a nutritious, sustainable meal for two pounds.”