Cambridge has a big-time food problem

And it’s hitting vulnerable students hardest

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We all know Cambridge is expensive.

It’s why pre-drinks were invented (I’d sooner mix my rum with bleach than pay £6 for a Bulmers). Food is undoubtedly expensive in Cambridge, particularly in the centre: it’s packed with overpriced chains and artisanal joints, and regardless of if you’re at the Arc or Pret, the cost of a sandwich and coffee can run way over a fiver.

Most of us think of Cambridge’s food prices as a minor inconvenience. But for some students, it’s not all that minor.

Food is a social thing. Catchup? Date? Subject/society social? It’s probably going to be food-based, and if your group has already picked the venue, nobody wants to be the person to say ‘can we change it? It’s too expensive.’ You can’t exactly go to a sit-down restaurant and not order with everyone else, and sure, you can pick the cheapest option…but what if it doesn’t fit your dietary requirements? Or what if you’re hungry and don’t want to order a damned arugula salad? The cost of social events can be a serious source of stress, but missing them to save money feels even worse.

Salads have their place. This was not that place.

But that’s just one example, and we’re not all heading to Giraffe every night – we’re more likely to get dinner from Sainsbury’s. And supermarkets are cheap, right? Well…compared to chain restaurants, sure, but it’s more complicated than that.

A general rule about food: the cheaper it is, the more work it takes. Ready meals are expensive; vegetables and grains are cheap; raw meat is much cheaper than the same volume of already-cooked meat. Makes sense – you pay for convenience. This rule also works well for the cost of individual supermarkets. Did you know there’s an ASDA Superstore in Cambridge? I can do a shop there for about half the price of an equivalent shop at Sainsbury’s – but I’ll have to walk a hour’s round trip to get there, and I’m at Emma, the closest college to it (from Fitz, it’d be more like a two-hour round trip). Same for Aldi, though that’s near the hill colleges. Sainsbury’s Local costs a bit more than bigger Sainsbury’s, because it’s ‘local’.

ASDA: part oversized greenhouse, part nuclear bunker

I don’t know exactly how much I’d save if I had the time to always shop at ASDA instead of Sainsbury’s Local, but I’m damn sure it’s a lot. Enough, I’d venture, to significantly lower some students’ stress levels.

But what if you’re disabled, suffer from depression or other conditions that restrict your energy? What if you just don’t have the time to walk to the Mill Road markets, go exploring for cheaper options, cook? What if, like me in my first year, you’re in accommodation with limited facilities – e.g. no hobs, no freezer space – and so you have much less scope to make and store your own food? The people who most need the cheapest options are often forced to use the most expensive ones. A homemade sandwich can be a tenth of the price of even a meal-deal one, but that won’t matter if you can’t use the bread in time.

Students at Emma, however, are less likely to encounter any bread-usage problems. [Image credit:]

And so far, I’ve just been talking about ‘food’, but food is an individual thing, not a general thing. We all have different food requirements – dietary restrictions, different activities we need to fuel (like work and extracurriculars), different preferences, different schedules. Hall is the obvious thing I haven’t mentioned yet, but we can’t rely on it as our only option: it’s got limited choices and limited time-frames, and so it doesn’t work for everyone. I cook my own food for various reasons (cheap, better nutritional info, my worrying addiction to stirfry) but I couldn’t do that last year. Plus, whilst I love cooking, it has its issues – using food by its sell-by date, and balancing cost with nutritional value (fruit is much more expensive than doughnuts).

Doughnut much missed, how you call to me, call to me… [Image credit:]

So, it’s all a bit of a mess, and it sometimes seems like the cards are stacked against Cambridge students eating healthily and cheaply. But we have to get to the root of this problem, for the sake of our quality of life – it’s not an exaggeration to say that what we eat directly affects our work. I’ve eaten too little and badly before and it completely tanked my ability to do anything: work, extra-curriculars, seeing friends, anything meaningful.

I don’t have any magical solutions, though I’d love to see better support and facilities for cooking here, and more schemes to divert students’ food waste. Plus, better awareness in Cambridge about the financial stress some social events can cause would be a good start.

For now, I’m going to use my column this term to explore what Cambridge has on offer, food-wise. Because we’ve all got to eat, and we all spend money and time on food – why not make sure we’re spending it well?

Next week: it’s ‘Mexican Monday’, and I’m hunting down good food from around the globe in Cambridge. (Sombrero optional.)