Your vision is blurred from the computer-screen and pages of text, that light-headed-when-did-I-last-eat feeling slowly descends, and you realise you still have thousands of words to write. There’s no point going home to eat because: a) you won’t do any more work if you go home, b) time will be lost in transit, and, c) let’s be real: it’s not like there is food there anyway. So how do you eat?
For those at at Pipitea, there are cafés scattered around the area. And those at Te Aro, you’re at the heart of Cuba Street. But for those stuck up at Kelburn, it’s more difficult due to the campus being up a big ass hill. During the day there’s various food outlets and vendings machines; you can find most items from coke and chocolate, pies and donuts, to salads, sushi, and curry. On Wednesdays there’s even a fruit and vegetable market. After hours though, it becomes a struggle for hungry students to find food. Food outlets close about 5.00pm, and Mena’s dairy closes not long after. So students are left with few options if they didn’t manage to pack their own dinner (who really is organised enough to do that?). Previous VUWSA Presidents have promised to sort out a food outlet to serve dinners, but as yet the promise has never been fulfilled. So barring a lot of forward planning, a trip down to town, or up to Kelburn, vending machines offer the only real option of sustaining oneself through a long, dreary night at the library.
Mauri Ora, the health and wellbeing service, has been working closely with Campus Services to increase the amount of healthy food in vending machines, the baby phase of a move to ensure the availability of accessible healthy food across campus. Salient spoke to Gerard Hoffman, the manager of Student Counselling at Mauri Ora, who told us a little more about their efforts. It’s a delicate balance for the university, between “running a nanny state” and taking the responsibility to actively encourage a healthy environment for students. There has been a gradual shift, as the vending machine companies have willingly adjusted their facilities in response to requests from the university. Students will have noticed the increased addition of muesli bars, nuts, tuna and crackers, protein balls, and sugar free or sugar-reduced drinks, amongst the abundance of confectionary.
Not only are the contents being negotiated, but the locations are too. There used to be four vending machines in the Student Union building, near the Bubble, and Mauri Ora made efforts to reduce this down to one. They thought it counterintuitive to have so much unhealthy food in the immediate vicinity of the health and wellbeing facilities.
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The measure to make vending machines healthier, and their locations more thought out, Hoffman says, is encompassed within a wider move towards a healthier environment on campus: “including sexual assault as a health issue, mental health and wellbeing, and the provision of education around health and wellbeing.” It is not just based around the vending machines, but part of a comprehensive plan, one that begs the question, “what does the university stand for when it comes to health and wellbeing for students?”
Hoffman expands on the moral crux of the matter, “it’s a fine line, arguably you might say, whatever you put in your body is generally only harming you, but we can make some moves around what we stand for as an institution.” Though they are well aware that “people can walk off campus and buy as make sugary drinks as they like, just as they can walk across the road and smoke, though you need to be careful about making comparisons between those issues,” there is still something to be said for creating a healthy environment. “We’re one of the world leaders in obesity, obviously people might say that comes down to personal responsibility, but health promotion says we can do a whole lot more as a community to influence people’s choices.”
The problem, therefore, is a matter of responsibility, and where responsibility lies. Is it a consumer’s issue? Perhaps it is up to the individual to know and ask and find out about the sugar and fat content of each item they purchase and eat. Does this only happen through education? Are these inherently privileged choices? (Consider the Instagram famous folk who buy green juices and have ‘smoothie bowls’—a meal that is a contradiction in terms). Therefore, if these educated choices are seemingly privileged, the community needs to ensure that those who don’t have access to further information, or those who have learnt poor habits in their youth, are able to have space away from these choices. The community needs to ensure they are not enabling them.
But on the other hand, it’s important to note that sometimes it isn’t as easy as proclaiming superlatives like “stronger willpower” and “better choices.” Obesity and being overweight are stigmatising labels to carry, and will often become the subject of ‘anti-obesity’ proposals and projects, which only serves to enhance the shame and low self-esteem that comes with an already eroded body image. If the onus is on, not the individual, but society, those suffering from weight gain and obesity, should be allowed a respite from negativity. The responsibility needs to be fairly spread.
On a walking tour of the vending machines in the Cotton building one afternoon (the universities mecca of vending machines), we saw that those with healthy options had no one hovering in front, meanwhile, the vending machines full of candy and those full of soft drinks had several students waiting in line, trying to choose between the indistinguishable sweetness. The handy eftpos slot has only made things easier for us blessed, spoilt millennials.