A university has offered to bring its self-isolating students three meals a day – provided they can stump up £125 a week.
Hundreds of people stuck in quarantine a Lancaster University of charging “unacceptably high” prices for the service, which costs £17.95 a day for three meals.
The university has emphasised that the meal plan is just one of the option for students, explaining that they still have access to their kitchens, alternative food delivery services and takeaways.
But students on campus – many of whom are first years – said that takeaways for a fortnight were an unaffordable option and supermarket delivery slots hard to find in an area already in extended lockdown due to high Covid-19 cases.
More than 900 people have signed a petition calling for the university to “stop profiting from self-isolating students”, with the student paper The Tab estimating that the actual cost-per-day of the menu (with supermarket delivery costs) is just £4.
An example menu features a breakfast of “pain au choc”, a homemade granola bar, a piece of fresh fruit and a fruit juice. For lunch the student will be brought a cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of crisps, another piece of fruit and a bottle of water. For their evening meal they can tuck into jerk chicken with spicy salsa or a spicy aubergine and lemon casserole with new potatoes and peas, alongside a soft drink and followed by a sweet treat.
The petition describes the cost of the meal package as “unacceptably high”, arguing that the “rates for food delivery will exacerbate the health impacts of the pandemic, making those with symptoms less likely to isolate, and more likely to break the rules.”
First year student Oliver Hill, 19, said he and his flatmates – who have been self-isolating in halls on campus for the past eight days – only found out about the university’s food service after seeing the row about the cost in The Tab.
He said he and his flatmates had been “very lucky” to secure supermarket delivery slots, adding that many students would have struggled to afford Lancaster’s meal delivery service.
A search by HuffPost UK found that while Tesco had a limited number of delivery slots available in Lancaster for Thursday, October 7, the city’s two largest supermarkets – Sainsbury’s and Asda – had nothing available until the weekend.
“We didn’t know about it [the university prepared meal plan] until a couple of days ago so we just had to sort ourselves out, but as soon as we found out we all pretty much agreed that it was ridiculous and we just couldn’t afford it,” Hill said.
“We’ve been ordering online and two of us are going down to pick the food up with masks on, trying not to touch anything outside of our flat, which isn’t ideal but there isn’t much else we can do.”
Fellow first year student Bhavreet Dulku, 18, told HuffPost UK that students on campus felt that the £17.95-a-day price tag for the meal service was an added insult on top of paying £9,000-a-year fees and huge rent costs for what amounted to as little as an hour a week contact time for some students.
She said: “It feels like the university doesn’t really care about student wellbeing, they promised that it would be safe when we came back and they said: ‘We’ll do our best for you’, and then this happens.
“We have people who are on low incomes without parents supporting them, the loan can’t cover a food budget like that.
“It’s hard to get delivery slots too, sometimes they’re not available for over a week. Most students on campus have only been here for a couple of weeks, so they might not have friends in other flats yet who can help them buy food – so what else are they supposed to do?”
Students have also criticised the university for charging self-isolating students £7 for a laundry service which would ordinarily cost around £2.40 a wash if they were able to do it themselves using communal facilities.
Hill said: “We haven’t really been told anything by the university. I do have enough clothes to last through the two weeks, but what if you didn’t? We’re already paying £9,000 a year to sit inside and learn online and then whatever it is for accommodation, and then they’re also trying to do this for money as well – how are people my age supposed to afford all that?”
Lancaster University issued a lengthy comment in response to allegations that they were profiting from self-isolating students, insisting that the £17.95 meal delivery service was opt-in, and students had been given details of alternative ways to secure food and supplies for the duration of their self-isolation.
A spokesperson said: “We recognise self-isolating can be a difficult and stressful time for our students. To make life a little easier we have provided an opt-in meal delivery service for any self-isolating students wishing to have fresh food prepared and cooked for them and delivered to their door.
“We are charging less than we would for our normal dining-in restaurant and café offer, despite additional costs of delivery and disposable containers.
“Students are not obliged to use this service and still have access to their own kitchens, alternative shopping and takeout food delivery services. The university has also provided students with information about suitable alternative source of food including supermarket delivery and other local commercial outlets.”
They explained that the package consists of three meals a day, prepared on a daily basis by chefs in the university kitchens, with prices kept “as low as we can without compromising on quality.
“Students choosing this service can have full confidence that they are eating food that has been prepared from locally sourced products – where possible – and all allergens and food intolerances are catered for,” they added.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.