The University of Groningen recently extended its contract with Beijk, Arts Faculty’s canteen food provider since its privatization in 2018, raising eyebrows amidst continuous complaints and petitions for change.
The start of the academic year has brought with it enthusiastic university students whose same enthusiasm mildly waned when entering the cafeteria of the Harmonie Building. “The first thing you see when you come in is just… junk food”, laments Eva, a fourth-year university student, “I want real food.”
Ticking the boxes
In a 2017 statement by the university, Liesbeth de Jong, spokesperson for the Services Department stated the university was unable to provide healthy and sustainable catering services of their own, thereby reaching a deal with private catering company Beijk, which allegedly ticked the boxes of internationalization, customer satisfaction, health, and vitality, as well as sustainability and environmentalism.
Many students regret the choice of Beijk of substituting metal cutlery and plates with one-use plastic and paper products, saying this goes against the RUG’s sustainability goals. In terms of internationalization, international students are surprised by the early closing times and limited offers.
“There is nothing left after 13:30,” says Eva at 13:40, holding a sandwich from Il Gusto, the sandwich shop next to the faculty, and the student’s go-to food corner by default.
Price, too, plays a big role in students’ and staff’s opposition to buying food from the canteen. A small salad bowl can reach up to over 5 euros and a ‘café latte’ with soy milk exceeds the 3 euros, making it more expensive than in many cafés around the city.
Inflation has indeed influenced prices all over the country, however, the price increase at the university has in several instances been much higher than its inflation correlation. In 2019, a petition by staff and students started circulating after the price of soup increased up to 65% in relation to the previous year.
Food for the coffee table
Although the choice of caterer was made on the basis of a public tender, it was primarily up to the department of purchase to select a provider and the contract extension decision has been kept under the radar without open student consultation.
Mark Barlinckhoff, contract manager for the university points out however that the standards are updated and that complaints are merely “food for the coffee table.”
“The food is bad, there are not enough vegan options, it is too expensive… there’s always complaints,” says Barlinckhoff. “Every year is the same.”
“The only task of the university is to educate students,” he remarks. Contentious statements like these are not new, the chronic housing crisis opens up every year the debate on the university’s degree of involvement in the more mundane matters and student plaints.
Insofar Beijk’s contract extension, it would seem that despite the university’s commitment to fostering a healthy learning environment, addressing the issue of healthy eating does not appear to be on the menu.