The dining hall at Christ Church college, Oxford.

Navigating dietary Requirements as an Oxford student

Passover is a Jewish holiday which lasts for eight days, and over those eight days Jews do not eat wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. So for eight days, I basically become gluten-free (with extra steps). 

Passover only occurs during term-time once a decade, so it is not a major issue for Jewish students, but as I spent over a week with very little other than crackers and avocado, I started thinking about the general experience of students with dietary requirements, and just how bad it can get.

I keep kosher, which is not so awful for me, because I will eat vegetarian non-kosher food. Yet not only does my college cafeteria not serve kosher food, it is actually banned. When you are a part of a minority group, you have to learn that your needs are not always going to be met. Realistically, I am not so foolish to think that my college should change their entire cafeteria for the sake of maybe three students at my college, yet very few accommodations are made for students with dietary requirements.

I am lucky enough to live with people who are generally respectful of other people’s kitchen utensils, but I have heard many, many horror stories about people walking into the kitchen and finding someone cooking bacon in their frying pan, or leaving containers of meat open in the fridge/freezer next to their food.

As I prepare to share a kitchen with forty-five people next year, my fears have steadily been increasing. Of course, this is something that I can deal with – before I learnt that I could trust the people I live with, I made sure to always wash and dry my utensils immediately and keep them in my room to make sure people didn’t borrow them, and I live with few enough people that I get my own shelf in the fridge and cupboard. It is unfeasible for me to get a kitchen to myself – no one in my college has that – and so I try not to complain, but being on edge about various meats being prepared in the kitchen is another stress that Oxford students really do not need.

With an allergy that is so serious, you would reasonably expect college to be more careful to prevent cross-contamination, yet there seems to be a total lack of regard for the dietary requirements of those with allergies.

Passover in particular was bad – the worst part was being unable to use my kitchen. Trying to find recipes that would actually be filling without requiring cooking was a challenge, to say the least. Of course, I don’t expect university to stop just because of a Jewish holiday, so I was going to classes and tutorials having eaten very little (looking back on Week 1, I was eating a concerningly little amount), and to say it didn’t affect my work would be lying to myself. 

Fasting has also had a major impact on me throughout the year. Judaism has maybe ten fast days, which I’m aware is nowhere near the same level as other religions, and as someone who does not fast well, it has been a particular struggle attending tutorials during fast days. Your strength is dilapidated, your mind becomes unfocused, and all you want to do is sleep. And of course, the university provides very little support (at least in my experience).

Vegetarianism is another not-so-wonderful dietary requirement to have at university. My college likes to pretend that they prioritise vegetarian meals, calling them “Menu 1”, yet realistically it is glaringly obvious that far more thought goes into the meat options, both every day and at formals. I am not suggesting that Oxford become all-vegan (a belief I know others hold): I do not think that you can force anyone to be vegetarian. But in a college with a significantly large population of vegetarians, one has to question why the JCR meeting pizza still tends to be non-vegetarian friendly? I am sure there are those who feel that having meat on pizza should be a constitutional right, but would anyone really suffer if the free pizza that college occasionally provides was vegetarian? 

Speaking of pizza (I should not be writing this article at lunchtime), the gluten-free options at college tend to be genuinely terrible. I am lucky enough to be able to eat gluten (with the exception of Passover), but it seems as though my friend who has celiac disease accidentally ingests gluten in supposedly gluten-free cafeteria food on an almost weekly basis. With an allergy that is so serious, you would reasonably expect college to be more careful to prevent cross-contamination, yet there seems to be a total lack of regard for the dietary requirements of those with allergies. 

The issue with dietary requirements is that so few people are affected that the majority must win every time. Colleges get away with making relatively few provisions for students because there are not enough students to object to this treatment. Not everyone can have their dietary requirements satisfied. And so this remains an eternal, unsolvable issue, at least for my college.

Image: Henrik Berger Jørgensen via Flickr.