Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


Food for Thought

In 2005 the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi scandalously insulted the Finnish nation when the two countries were locked in fierce competition over the siting of the proposed European Food Safety Authority. The Finns, he claimed, knew nothing about good food and, therefore, were totally unsuited to hosting such an institution.

Speaking as a rare foreigner who actually likes such delicacies as mämmi or even lanttulaatikko, I felt Finland’s pain at this blunt dismissal of its gastronomy.

But in the public sector, Finnish food culture really is still stuck in a bygone era; nowhere more so than in our university canteens. Their mission is to produce nutritious lunches at rock-bottom prices for our impoverished students and staff. The problem is not so much their failure as their success. Across the land, all such establishments excel at producing low-cost meals with just the right content of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and trace minerals, whilst minimizing ingredients such as sugar, salt, trans-saturated fats or traces of antibiotics, that are believed to be harmful; and even offering a vegetarian option for folk like me. The result is a cheap and healthy meal whose taste and attractiveness is irrelevant, and therefore close to zero.

One recent American visitor to my own university derisively referred to the entire menu as ‘slop’ and refused point blank to try even the salad bar. Whilst today’s Finns still take pride in their ancestors’ valour and ingenuity in the Winter War, we do not honour them by subjecting our youth (and ourselves) to a wartime diet.

Most university campuses are far from city centres, where the recent proliferation of gourmet and wholefood cafes, sandwich bars and ethnic eateries provides a real choice for those who don’t wish to make up their own lunchboxes at home. But I can’t think of any valid reason why those who work and study on campus shouldn’t have the same choices available to them. Instead of a state-inspired monopoly of mediocrity, we need proper options: a food court like in shopping malls, airports or rail terminals worldwide, where providers compete to deliver food that is delicious as well as nutritious, at prices determined by the market just as anywhere else. Companies like Prêt à Manger, Asiagourmet or the now excellent Koti Pizza should be free to win our custom, alongside local independent operators.

And maybe it would also be a great idea for such places to stay open into the evening, encouraging especially our students to stay later in the lab to advance their projects, or read and write in peace, without having to rush away at 4 p.m. to avoid incipient hunger.

J P Roos 11.02.2019
I do agree with your appraisal of the university food. Fact is, Berlusconi was right! BUT your proposal with food courts and open competition is a bit suspect. The result would be a much more expensive food. We should instead shame the present monopoly to giving us better food at low price. Let's hope your blog will have this effect!

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