Why food really matters to international student well-being

“Importing ingredients that help make a ‘local’ dish truly authentic can make a huge difference to students”

Most of us happily take it for granted that we will be able to buy the food we like when we want to. For international students coming to study in the UK, access to the food they like to eat is not a given so schools and colleges that see the true importance of food as a way to; ease homesickness, increase social interaction and improve general well-being should be applauded.

Recent research puts the issue into perspective

Masters 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, 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.”

So, how can institutions do their very best to ensure food is seen as a crucial aspect of pupil/student wellbeing?

Creating the true taste of home

Importing ingredients that help make a ‘local’ dish truly authentic can make a huge difference to students.  Brooke House, Principal Mike Oliver says, “we import a Jasmine rice from Vietnam and purchased a couple of Vietnamese steam cookers to make the rice taste like how our Vietnamese students would expect it to taste at home”.

At Felsted school, every Friday night a different team of Upper 6th girls prepare a meal of their choice for their contemporaries to showcase their own food cultures. There have been added benefits to this approach, as Sufia Maguire, Felsted Housemistress points out; “The sharing of food has been wonderful but the telling of experiences and the answering of questions has created a real bond between the girls and helped inform about families and cultures”.

British cooking traditions, like cake baking, can break down social barriers

The ‘bake off’ tradition is alive and well in many schools.  Baking is a communal activity and has many social benefits, as Fiona Pocock from Bosworth College points out, “International boarding students benefit from participating in cooking and baking. It provides an excuse for those who are shy and generally more inclined to stay in their rooms to join in a shared, purposeful activity”.

Baking for charity is another way to create social bonds and get international students involved in the local community. Many schools, including Bosworth College and Kings Colleges, have found this to be an ongoing activity that has many benefits.

“Baking for charity is another way to create social bonds and get international students involved in the local community”

Also, introducing other British food traditions break down barriers between all students; Kings Colleges’ start of term ‘principal’s tea party’, and ‘fish and chip’ Fridays are notable successes.

Growing food, adding a local connection

At Taunton school, all products, including meat, vegetables, milk and cheese used by the catering team is sourced locally, giving pupils a real sense of the location of the school and the farms and small local businesses around the school. The school also has its own kitchen garden that is used throughout the year to supply the school’s kitchen.

So how can schools be sure they are meeting the culinary needs of their international students?

Giving students a real input into menu selection is vital. At Moreton Hall, there is a student food committee that meets regularly with the school’s chef to discuss new dishes and regular changes to the menu.

Also there are awards aimed at schools, for example, the CAP Awards Programme assesses the culinary output of schools and includes a clear focus on pupil engagement & feedback.

So there are lots of ways to ensure food is at the heart of a school’s social life.

As Caroline Nixon, General Secretary of BAISIS (British Association of Independent Schools with International Students) points out; “whilst all efforts should be made to produce an international selection of food, all students should join in with ordinary school meals. A recent Boarding school visit (not to a BAISIS school) found two Chinese girls sitting in their bedroom eating Pot Noodles.  I was told that this was allowed because they ‘preferred their own food’, this isn’t being kind or tolerant; it’s enabling social exclusion and isolation as well as poor health”.

About the author:  Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.