Food for thought: How (not) to feed Cambridge students in self-isolation

It’s the being told to have two weeks’ worth of food but only having half a shelf of fridge space for me

The Cambridge ‘gyp’ is one of the more unusual (read:rubbish) parts of the Cambridge experience. The frequent lack of ovens, sharing a small fridge sometimes between 10 people and not being able to fit more than three people inside at any one time isn’t easy even when you’re attempting to make a pot noodle during an essay crisis, let alone attempting to make it through two weeks of self-isolation. 

So, when last week 223 Homerton students were told to self-isolate following an outbreak of coronavirus cases, for those students who were fortunate enough to still be able to smell and taste their dinner, being able to sustain themselves with lack of access to hall (and takeaways) and cramped gyps became a real problem.

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Students react to the college’s handling of isolating students on Homfess (credit: Homfess Facebook page)

The Tab Cambridge has spoken to isolating students at Homerton, as well as those at other colleges across the University, to find out about the trials and tribulations of catering during self-isolation:

“Our kitchen is stated as being for snack purposes”

Overall, Homerton students have expressed dissatisfaction with how college has handled catering for self-isolating students. The main problem is that students are finding themselves without sufficient facilities to cook for themselves, ordinarily eating one or two meals a day in hall. One student at Homerton told the Tab: “The college loves to advertise itself as de facto catered, but when we’re actually forced to isolate, they can’t handle the demand. 

“Instead, they shift the blame to us, insisting that students should have two weeks’ worth of food at all times, and that college food isn’t guaranteed.”

So, why are the cooking facilities in so many Cambridge colleges causing such problems for isolating students? Many student accommodation blocks only have microwaves, with no hobs or ovens (for example some Emmanuel freshers’ accommodation), and often minimal fridge space is available, with some colleges have a shared fridge amongst those who share a gyp (in some instances up to eight or more people). This is, of course, more manageable (if not frustrating to some) when hall is open for three meals a day, and students often live on a combination of gyp and hall meals. But now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are not simply not sufficient facilities for students to sustain themselves over quarantine. 

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One of Homertons gyps, ft. some post-it notes (Photo credits: Alicia Powell)

Homerton students have echoed these difficulties, with one student telling us: “Maybe (it) would be reasonable if we had more than half a shelf [in the fridge] each, or freezers or ovens – but we don’t. We can’t go and buy food, and they can’t supply everyone, so some students resorted to ordering takeaways – the college then banned this as if it was some irresponsible disregard for the rules instead of a last-ditch attempt to eat something resembling a meal.”

As annoying as the lack of cooking facilities can often be, there are often legitimate reasons behind this: as many Cambridge colleges advertise themselves as “catered”, the facilities they are able to provide are restricted, for a combination of legal and fire safety reasons. Signs in Churchill College kitchens reads: “It is not intended that this kitchen should be used to produce a full meal. This is a requirement of the Local Authority who, as we are a catered college, limit the amount of equipment which we can put into kitchens on the grounds of Fire Prevention and Health & Safety”. 

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Local Authorities limit the amount of equipment placed in kitchens for both fire and health and safety reasons

Similarly, Homerton’s  2019-20 accommodation handbook stresses that “the facilities provided for students’ use are intended for modest catering only (breakfast and personal meals)”, in other words, that the facilities provided are not designed for students to use to cook three meals a day, seven days a week. 

Homerton College does not assume responsibility for feeding students

When responding to self-isolating students’ concerns over food provisions, the college told students that they “should have two weeks’ worth of food at all times and that college food isn’t guaranteed”. 

Screenshot from a post on Homfess about catering provisions for isolating students

A statement from the college claimed that Homerton College is “not fully ‘catered’. Students have not paid in advance for their meals. Most students do not eat every meal in the Hall of Buttery”. 

This seemingly contradicts the guidance in their own accommodation handbook, meaning that in many cases students most likely have not stocked up on two weeks’ worth of food in their half-a-shelf of fridge space in preparation of receiving the dreaded *please self-isolate immediately* text. 

Not only is this frustrating for students who were asked to self-isolate with little warning, but is also putting students in a situation where they’re being forced to cook for themselves, with little alternative, in kitchens which have insufficient facilities.

Homerton College itself said in their 2017-18 handbook that these kitchens were “suitable for snack preparation only”, as “there are technical legal reasons why these kitchens cannot be updated for full self-catering use”, and it is not clear whether these facilities have since been updated or modified for this unprecedented change in how they’re used.

What about College food deliveries?

A number of Cambridge colleges have been operating meal delivery services for self-isolating students, with varying degrees of success. Churchill, amongst a number of other colleges, are providing an opt-out meal delivery service for isolating students, delivering three meals and snacks daily for £10 a day – meaning that a period of self-isolation can have a toll on your bank account as well as your social interaction. Meanwhile, Clare College has provided isolating students with delivery boxes, with everything from frozen hall meals, to pasta, rice and – of course – biscuits, with no additional cost.

One student at Clare, who had received one of these boxes, told The Tab: “They gave me a two day box for the first bit and then a full on 14 day box which was actually really good, it had frozen meals made by hall and tons of tins/packets etc.”

Example of food box given to isolating Clare students (Photo credits: Hannah Martin)

Homerton is also offering food delivery services for self-isolating students, however, students have had numerous difficulties with the service, meaning that students have been unable to rely on this for their meals. One student told The Tab: “Repeatedly we have been given the wrong food, or food simply hasn’t shown up, with no refund offered.”

Another student told us that “two of my household members are vegan and one was given cheese in one of her meals, the other was given a non-vegan sausage”, whilst another student “ordered vegetarian lasagne one night and they just replaced it with cauliflower.” Again, this puts students in a position where they’re struggling to access food, in an already difficult time. 

The tradition of the Cambridge gyp has, of course, been around for far longer than the coronavirus pandemic, and the University and its colleges have had to very quickly adapt to the many difficulties that welcoming students back during a pandemic has posed. The practical solutions open to colleges to the issues of Cambridge gyps and having many students in self-isolation at one time are limited. Every college, and every accommodation block, is different and therefore some students will naturally be in a better position than others. 

However, certain colleges’ response to the issue of catering shows that it is possible to respond to the challenges of providing catering to self-isolating students (which we’re not denying must be a difficult task!), without leaving students hungry and in the lurch.

Homerton College has been contacted for comment.

All image credits to Alicia Powell, Katie Thacker or Hannah Martin.