Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Seeking Diverse Food Beyond the Dining Hall: Take-Out & Food-Trucks, By Isabella Gillard (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

To cope with the dissatisfactory cultural food at the dining hall, many international students turn to sources outside of the dining halls to reduce their homesickness. Angelina is a don at Victoria college, and she noticed that many of her first years who are international students rely on getting take-out food to have “proper international food.” She recalled one student from China ordered up to $50 in Ubereats every night for a semester, from a variety of Chinese restaurants nearby. Melia also went to drastic measures because there were no Egyptian restaurants nearby, so she brought packages of home-cooked frozen food in her suitcase back from Egypt. Angelina worried that many international students in residence may not be able to afford take-out on top of the mandatory meal plan, and these financial barriers may exacerbate their homesickness since they were limited to eating at the dining hall. This would explain why many students turn towards food trucks that offer cheaper and more accessible options than restaurants and avoids the delivery fees of UberEats. Helen recalled how her roommate back in first year “ran away from the dining hall to the food trucks” on St. George Street. Helen’s roommate became an expert in campus food trucks and showed Helen how the pink food truck had the best Taiwanese chicken burgers, but the white food truck had the best stir-fry. For Helen, an international student from Shanghai, seeing the white food truck’s menu written in Chinese characters and the long line of Chinese students waiting eagerly outside made her feel like “there [was] a place for Chinese food on campus.” Both on and off campus students have found places to eat authentic ethnic food and reduce their homesickness, however many may not be able to take advantage of these diverse alternatives due to the financial restrictions of the mandatory meal plan. 

Take-out can also serve to ameliorate distress related to the stressors of university. Nadia’s homesickness peaked when her mental health began to deteriorate during midterm season in her first year, and the dining hall food felt like the last straw. Nadia’s parents encouraged her to order food off-campus that would nourish her and told her not to worry about using up her meal plan because her mental health came first. Viv also found that take out was more comforting and better for her mental health, even if it was fast food and not necessarily more nutritious than the dining hall. One salient memory for Viv was bombing an exam and feeling even worse when she tried to get food at the dining hall afterwards, so she ended up treating herself to UberEats. It is striking that both Nadia and Viv turned to food off-campus to comfort themselves in times of distress because they couldn’t handle the food in the dining hall. I believe these students felt this way because the Westernized versions of ethnic food they encountered in the dining hall food were experienced as “micro-offences” that can be ignored most days but accumulate overtime, so when stress is high during midterm or finals season these students have a lower tolerance to cope. These ethnographic examples, stress the importance of food as an overlooked but critical component of student health and wellness, which the university is currently failing to effectively address. 

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