While I would argue that it’s a bad time to be anybody right now, it's a particularly bad time to be a uni student.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of young people have moved halfway across the country, all for a few online lectures, maybe five government-sanctioned friends and some form of house arrest. Predictably, all this moving has resulted in mass coronavirus outbreaks in halls across the UK, leaving universities with the thorny problem of how to feed and otherwise look after hundreds of angry, sick teenagers living away from home for the first time.
It has not been going very well. Students at Leeds were advised to wash their underwear in the sink without detergent, Aberdeen tried to charge students for boxes of groceries at £42 every three days, and many students have been left to fend for themselves with no provisions from their uni at all. Sticky notes in student accommodation windows have included such sentiments as “Fuck Matt Hancock” and “9K, propa bargain thanks Boris”, as well as more forlorn cries for help, like “cuddle?”
The luckier ones have been provided with some food by their institutions. With that in mind, I asked isolating students to show me what they’ve been served. Now, it’s worth saying that all of this food would undoubtedly look at least a little more appetising if you saw it, say, atop a candlelit table on the side of a bridge, like in the Dr Oetker Ristorante advert. Presentation is a key part of any dining experience, and the lighting and mise-en-scene are doing no favours in any of these images. Still, let’s dive in.
Toni, who’s living at halls in Glasgow, told me that students in the first flats to succumb to the virus weren’t given much in the way of food at all, but that over the past two weeks of her own quarantine she’s had packages of emergency cupboard food and a handful hot meals provided. Here’s the chicken curry that she and her mostly-vegetarian household were given one night:
I have to hand it to Glasgow: this is recognisably a chicken curry. The portion size leaves something to be desired, and the rice to curry ratio looks badly off, at least from this angle, but this is uncontestably A Meal.
Amelie, who’s living in catered halls at Nottingham, has not been very impressed by their offering. If it arrives, they get warm, long-life milk for breakfast and miniature packets of Rice Krispies. No bowls, though, and often no cutlery, so it’s the old depraved bachelor life hack of pouring the milk into the plastic cereal packaging and downing it like a crunchy pint, or nothing.
On the hot meal front, things are better by virtue of being provided inside a receptacle to eat it from, but otherwise not great:
I asked her what this was, because I couldn’t work out what was happening in the orange segment of the box, and she said that, despite having eaten it, she wasn’t sure. It was rice-based and “very soggy”, but also “dried out”, which is actually quite difficult to achieve, so fair play to them.
Later that same day, Amelie sent me the following picture of her dinner, which came with a complementary highlighter lid nestled among the gravy-less potatoes:
Mary*, a fresher, told me that they’ve been prohibited from ordering any food for themselves, and had everything provided by Durham. Everything, including food parcels consisting “mainly of custard”, and for vegans about 700 calories worth of food per day, including chicken Pot Noodle. Here is one of the better things they’ve been given: a veggie all day breakfast, flattened into a box:
Nothing edible looks good pressed up against cellophane. That said, this looks properly bad. There’s an extremely threatening aura coming off whatever’s looming up from beneath the bean swamp here. Egg, certainly, but not just egg; something darker and more disquieting.
Mary said that, “obviously it’s a difficult time, but you would have thought they would have prepared better for this inevitable situation”, and that while she wasn’t feeling great, someone without coronavirus “smuggled me a banana and a tomato” from the canteen that day, so things were “looking up”.
Of everything I was sent, this is where all the most troubling stuff came from. The food situation at Edinburgh’s been so bad that two freshers set up an Instagram account called Pollock Prisoner to document it. One student was given a packet of instant noodles two months out of date, stale bread rolls abound, and some have gone days without food at all.
My own sister is a coronavirus-positive first year at Edinburgh, and said that while the food has been getting better and more substantial in recent days, it was still not quite what you’d choose to ride out a pandemic on. Here is an example breakfast, which I like to call “orange, orange, orange”:
Sinister. Individually, there’s nothing wrong with any of these objects, but offered as a group, this reads more like a coded message than a balanced breakfast. What is the significance of the orange? With early onset cabin fever, this is the sort of question that could keep you up at night, scratching theories into the wall with a fork.
The fruity pots are a fixture at Edinburgh, another fresher tells me, and nobody likes them, so they’ve been co-opted for that time-honoured student pastime: stacking things on top of other things. Here is part of his collection, adorning the sink:
Edinburgh is also the source of the worst meal picture I saw.
Look, do I sometimes find myself so unmotivated to cook or treat myself with any respect that I buy and consume ready meals that look like this? Yes. Or at least, that’s what I thought until I saw the pool of water in amongst the vegetables, which I would argue tips this beyond a badly-photographed depression meal into the realms of the disgusting. The less said about whatever derivative of chicken is congealing in white sludge, the better.
*Name altered to protect the student’s anonymity.