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Table stakes: The link between food culture and student satisfaction

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There are increasing indicators that food quality, cost, and familiarity can have a significant effect on a student’s study abroad experience
  • Students are paying attention when food choices aren’t up to par, and improving food services for visiting students is becoming a source of differentiation and competitive advantage for some institutions and schools

When students decide to study abroad, chief among their considerations are academics and the extent to which a foreign education can pave the way to greater career opportunities. But once they get to the institution of their choice, a whole host of variables influence their satisfaction, including culture and lifestyle factors, how easy it is to make friends and get involved on campus, and the quality of their accommodations.

Another important determinant of student satisfaction is food. Students in many countries are increasingly interested in healthy, local, organic food choices – and many institutions are responding in kind. While international students also desire a high quality of food and nutrition, they may also have a more profound emotional need for food that is familiar. Much as is the case with housing, the importance of this is hard to overstate in terms of its impact on student success, satisfaction, and retention. Many international educators have long since learned that if a visiting student has a bad housing situation, this can overshadow all other aspects of their study abroad experience. There are increasing indicators that the same is true of food as well.

Food isn’t just functional, it’s emotional

Go to live in a new country and one of the first things you’ll notice is the food. The food at the grocery store, at restaurants, on the streets, and – if you’re an international student – on campus. Exploring a foreign food culture can be exciting, but deciding how and what to eat can also be challenging, especially for young students. Such students are often newly on their own – without their parents’ guidance and cooking – and they may be overwhelmed by the choices they must make around food, especially if they are experiencing other symptoms of culture shock such as homesickness and loneliness.

Prompted by a discussion with a Korean student who was unhappy with her experience of food choices on campus, University of Guelph Master of Anthropology student Erika Stewin undertook research on “food insecurity” issues among international students at two Canadian universities. Her research found that,

“Many students described experiencing food insecurity, which can be defined as a temporary or ongoing inability to access healthy and preferable foods that allow one to live a functional life…Students related feelings of depression, homesickness and identity loss, hunger, difficulties with weight loss or weight gain, and stories of being forced to compromise religious beliefs in order to eat.”

Ms Stewin’s research linking food issues with culture shock and potentially negative student experiences is echoed in a Voice of America article, in which one interviewee, Mohammed, a young student just beginning his studies at a school in Minnesota, exclaimed, “Oh man I miss my mom’s delicious white spicy rice. I miss my favorite Iraqi dish, Biryani…One thing I never thought about [before leaving home] was food – how badly I would miss my mother’s dishes, and how food would be a huge part of my culture shock.”

Another foreign student, Linjia Tang from China, spoke to Kansas State University’s The Collegian about her concern that American food options were unhealthy:

“If I stay here and eat a lot of American food, my weight will get higher. Almost all the food is like, ‘cheeseburger cheeseburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, hot dog, hot dog.’”

Ms Tang noted that the fear of weight gain is common among Chinese students, and that in China, it is more common to watch calories and not exercise much than it is to eat relatively more and then work out to compensate, the latter being a more common aspect of food culture in North America.

Sticking with the example of the US, there are a number of universities that are actively responding to students’ concerns about diet and weight.

  • The University of Maryland offers students a Smart Choice Menu offering healthy, low-calorie meals. What’s especially interesting here is that student nutrition interns write the menus for the meals and conduct the calorie counts for each.
  • Virginia Tech’s You’re Eating (and Living) Smarter (Y.E.S.) system uses a Y.E.S. icon system to highlight meal options that have whole grains, high fruit and vegetable content, and good protein values. The Princeton Review has rated Virginia Tech as #1 for “best campus food.”
  • At Columbia University, the dining hall food on offer to students always comes with a nutritional breakdown, “as well as vegan, kosher, halal, and food allergy options.” As if that weren’t enough, the produce, baked goods, and GMO-free milk are all locally-sourced.
  • At the Florida Institute of Technology, Chef Jon Skoviera has launched an “international dinner series” and “enlists students to suggest menu items and critique them, incorporating them into the daily cafeteria menu.”
  • And at Texas’s Del Mar College, one Pakistani student took matters into his own hands when he noticed there weren’t enough diverse food options: he started his own restaurant. The Spice Station sells halal meat to Muslim customers and has a line of vegetarian options for Hindus.

If you’re going to do it, do it right

The example of The Spice Station, however, also illustrates that while institutions may be getting serious about offering better food options, there may be missing a strong demand for genuine, traditional food on the part of their growing international student populations.

In fact, last year international students at the University of Oberlin in Ohio famously protested the “international cuisine” being offered on campus. The complaint, as reported by Clover Lihn Tran at The Oberlin Review, was that the contracted campus food vendor, “Has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”

Two of the dishes singled out by dissatisfied students were a “cheap imitation” of the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, Bánh mì (“How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”) and a lackluster presentation of sushi (“disrespectful”). In addition, the caterer served up a tandoori dish made with beef on Diwali, a Hindu holiday, disregarding the fact that many Hindus do not eat beef in observance of their religion.

One Oberlin student made this point:

“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture.”

The students’ protests about campus food made headlines across the country, including in The Atlantic, whose correspondent added, “If I were an Oberlin professor, I’d be quietly amassing spices and recipes to have a few of the homesick students over for whatever they consider comfort food. And a lot of people mocking the students would have a hard time adjusting to the dining-hall cuisine of an Asian country if forced to live abroad there for a year.”

Ms Stewin, meanwhile, makes the point that international students may be paying “three to five times” the cost of domestic tuition rates in Canada, and that they deserve a study experience in which their needs are met not just academically, but socially and culturally as well.

She adds the following point with respect to setting, and delivering, on student expectations: “Stories of recruitment presentations were key in decisions to come to Canada for post-secondary education. Recruiters described a smorgasbord of familiar, preferred, and culturally appropriate foods that would be readily available on campus. Yet once they arrived, students were shocked and disappointed by the high prices associated with on-campus foods, the lack of culturally appropriate foods (especially halal items), portion sizes and the cost of the meal plans in relation to the quantity and quality of foods purchased.”

Crucially, Ms Stewin also noted, “Dissatisfaction with food offerings on-campus does have potential implications for universities. Participants felt that a lack of culturally appropriate foods on campus was an example of administrations ignoring their needs.”

As these examples illustrate, food quality, variety, and cultural appropriateness can have a significant bearing on students’ satisfaction levels with study abroad. Better food options for international students lead to more interesting dining environments in general, and help to nurture a feeling of inclusiveness and respect for multiple cultures on campus.

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