Food prices on campus are high, and not set to change

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Food prices on campus are high, and not set to change

It's an often heard complaint among students: food prices on campus are too high and there's too little choice. A petition to change this came to nothing. Cursor investigated how the prices and product range in the canteens and the SPAR came about, and whether something can be done.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

The Auditorium is filled with the smell of hot meat and Italian cheese and herbs. Every study break, huge numbers of students stand in line outside Subway, sometimes backing up as far as the entrance to the building, waiting to buy an elongated sandwich for 8 euros. And if you don't choose a regular sandwich-sauce combo but another sauce, you'll pay €1.50 extra, as your reporter found out.

International student Liam Geschwindt never fails to be surprised by this daily spectacle. Early last year he started a petition against the high food prices and the limited choice of affordable hot meals on campus. When the petition was handed in at the start of this year, it was signed by more than a thousand people. Now, over three months later, it still hasn't been actioned.

"I think the petition really showed that students are feeling exploited and put in a position where they have to pay much more than is necessary. When you think that students are among the least well-off people in society, it's so counterintuitive."

Geschwindt gives the Subway line a wide berth as he makes his way to the Atlas building, where the range of food on offer is in the hands of caterer Appèl. He shows the various bread rolls, two types of soup and a handful of hot meals displayed in the two Food City canteens. “Look, here's a chicken stew for €7.95. Three bites and you've eaten it, and you're still not full,” he says, pointing to a takeaway container of rice, chicken and a red sauce.

Geschwindt's first port of call with the signatures was student faction Groep-één. They told him that the university has contracts with the caterer and that nothing can be done until these expire. Groep-één believes that the petition was sent to the Facility Management Center. But the FMC says it was never received. What happened to the petition after that, Geschwindt doesn't know.

A lot of grumbling, precious little action

“I've certainly heard talk of the petition in the corridors, but we never received it,” confirms Monique Kuyck, head of Operational Services & Location Management (part of the Facility Management Center). Added to which, she doubts whether the petition - assuming it was formally submitted - would have made a difference. “Starting a petition and letting it be known that you think the prices are too high, that's an opinion; it doesn't give me anything I can work with,” says Kuyck. “What we're looking for is specific input on how to do things better.”

And that has proved harder to gain than expected. “People are quick to grumble, but when we say come and help us to improve things, they aren't quick to pitch in,” says Kuyck. The question whether open sessions are being held to gather input is greeted with wry humor: “I wish!”

Right now it's being left to us to make decisions instead of those decisions coming from the TU/e community

Marjolein Knooren
Policy advisor hospitality

This is because over the past year policy advisor Marjolein Knooren has made great efforts to set up a focus group to gather more concrete input from the TU/e community. “In the last customer satisfaction survey we asked respondents whether they wanted to join the group,” she says. “Of the 1800 respondents, 17 people said they were keen to share ideas. Ultimately 12 came along to the first session, at the second there were only ten, and we currently have six.”

The focus group currently comprises only employees, not a single student. “Whenever I speak to a student, the response is always ‘Put it in an email.’ Then, when it comes to it, they don't have the time.” To boost the number of students in the focus group, Knooren also approached student federations and study associations, but she never got a response.

She emphasizes how important it is to have a large and varied group working on issues such as catering. “Right now it's being left to us to make decisions instead of those decisions coming from the TU/e community. Of course, this means it's highly likely that any new scenario will be out of step with everyone's needs and wishes.”

Would you like to be help shape the catering on campus? If so, send an email to

Not a regular supermarket

As well as the canteens, in Geschwindt's petition the only supermarket - the SPAR University in Luna - was criticized for its high prices. “A single banana costs a euro here. In a regular supermarket you can pick up five for €1.89,” says Geschwindt.

According to branch manager Stephanie Roelandschap, this grumbling is nothing new. “Nine years ago, when I started and the prices were lower, I used to hear students saying ‘Jeez, that's expensive’ and I'm still hearing it,” she tells Cursor. “We are thought of as being expensive. But small bottles, or filled rolls, are more expensive wherever you buy them. When you go to an AH To Go, you pay even more for a freshly made filled roll.”

For an explanation of the pricing structure used at SPAR University, Martijn ten Berge, Chief Growth Officer at SPAR, is the person to ask. “SPAR University is an entirely different concept than a regular supermarket,” he begins. “The average supermarket has a turnover of about 200,000 euros a week; an average SPAR University has less than a quarter of that turnover .” He attributes this to a number of important differences: the number of customers, the average spend per customer, and the number of effective weeks.

While the store may be heaving at break times, the total number of customers is lower than at regular supermarkets. And a lot less money is being spent. “Thirty euros is an average spend at a supermarket in the Netherlands. The most we see is 5 euros,” Ten Berge tells Cursor. Then there's the location - a campus - which means that certain weeks are lost. “We have 40 not 52 effective weeks per year,” he explains. The store is almost empty during vacations and on public holidays. “So on a campus you have to work with your pricing if you want to be at all viable.”

For all these reasons, says Ten Berge, the SPAR University cannot be compared to a regular supermarket. “We're competing with the Albert Heijn To Go, not the regular Albert Heijn.”


To the question whether the students' views were already known to Appèl, the caterer behind Food City, the answer is a resounding yes. “But I don't think the way they're expressed is always justified,” says Steven ten Cate, the caterer's campus account manager. “It sometimes seems like the discussion is being framed by an opinion that's shouted out. So I'm in favor of the appeal made by the Facility Management Center for students to join the focus group; that's how we can collaborate constructively to align food and beverages offerings with the wishes held at TU/e.”

Prompted by the petition, the caterer took a good look at its own offering. “We did some math. Are our prices really so extreme? Compared to other caterers in our field? That was not the case.” However, says Ten Cate, Appèl's prices are higher than they'd like due to higher staffing costs and wholesale prices.


Added to which there are the costs the university charges Appèl. “Some (commercial) parties pay us a subsidy to keep our prices down. Here, we have to pay a considerable fee and a percentage of turnover to the university to be allowed to do the catering. These costs are directly reflected in our product prices.”

According to Facility Services, this fee is intended to pay for the equipment loaned at the catering location. Kuyck: “As a university, we no longer subsidize our caterers. We used to, but these days the deal is this: a commercial business must operate at its own expense and risk. They pay a fee from which we pay (among other things) for the maintenance of the equipment we provide. In the past that was four or five hundred thousand a year, but it's now much less. Twenty percent of that. We plow that back into supporting the catering outlets, with things like the maintenance of furniture and equipment. But the costs we incur far outstrip the fee we're charging the caterer.”

Actually our costs are now too high. Especially now that people, post-corona, are spending more time working from home

Steven ten Cate
Campus account manager Appèl

Ten Cate refers to the current agreement with the university as a ‘pre-corona contract’. “Before corona we could afford the fee. At the moment there's not a campus in the country putting its catering out to tender with a fee like ours. So actually our costs are now too high. Especially now that people, post-corona, are spending more time working from home. What's more, students are now more aware of how they spend their money.” While the caterer has been able to make a few price-lowering agreements, such as different opening hours, with the university, until 2029 it is tied into its present contract. “Things are difficult.”

Kuyck has a different view. “The population on the campus is so large that with a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit the caterer should be able to earn back the fee. Especially if they have a product range and pricing that's geared to our population.”

Hot meals

The caterer works with a special system under which a manager prepares a different menu for each location (Atlas, Metaforum, Helix and Vertigo). This makes it possible to better gear the product range to customer wishes, but it has its disadvantages. “It fragments our wholesale purchasing and limits variety in the product range. And so we're now working with a menu cycle. This enables us to purchase efficiently. So, as you can see, we are working on our prices.”

This change is also good news for students because it will mean a change to the hot meals on offer. “The current offering isn't exactly what students want. We're seeing and hearing that. A new menu will be available in the first week of May. We hope we'll then have an offering that's much more in tune with students' wishes.” What that offering will be, Ten Cate can't yet say. Though he does think international students will find it more appealing. The new menu will first be served in Metaforum.

To organize in-house catering you need a completely different range of expertise

Monique Kuyck
Head of Operational Services & Location Management
Back to a set meal in a university restaurant?

For students looking for an eat-in hot meal on campus, the new menu provides the only option to date. A university restaurant serving a set meal, such as columnist Tim de Jong argued for only last week, is likely a thing of the past. “To organize in-house catering you need a completely different range of expertise. You need your own experts in purchasing, menu planning, cooking, etc.,” says Kuyck. And, she says, from a financial perspective, you need sufficient flexibility in terms of your employees. “It sounds harsh, but during corona we saw why we have a flexible shell of employees. As an organization you want to be more flexible.”

So, we can forget about having a university restaurant. For us, it's the SPAR, Subway or Food City - or you can always bring your own lunch, of course.

Cursor went out to ask students what they would pay for a sandwich in the canteen. The ideal price and the actual amount were quite different.

What would you pay for this sandwich?

Cursor went out to ask students what they would pay for a sandwich in the canteen. The ideal price and the actual amount were quite different.

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