If there is one thing I love about studying in Helsinki, it's the student restaurants. As a vegetarian I can relish in abundant, healthy and varied meals for ridiculously low prices. What makes it so good here?
In many things, Finland distinguishes itself by balancing the free market with strong government support where necessary. For student food this is no different. Finlands' social security institution Kela provides private catering companies with a € 1.94 subsidy per student meal. To enjoy this support, caterers need to comply with a long list of requirements.
One requirement is a salad as part of every meal. Mostly that means the local vegetable staples: lettuce, carrots and some form of cabbage. But I regularly find protein-rich foods such as beans and chickpeas too. And sometimes even pasta dishes complete with sundried tomatoes can be scooped from one of the salad trays. Other times there's also fruit. In the winter there were canned mango pieces or quarter oranges, now I regularly had watermelon pieces.
Salads can be topped off with an assortment of dressings and seeds depending on the restaurant. One restaurant even has breadcrumbs and fried onions to go with soup or salad.
By requirement, the salad bar comes before the main meal. This is a prime example of nudging, it invites the visitors to include more vegetables and legumes on their plate before taking the main meal. A welcome change for student's health and the environment!
For everyone. Yes, also for you, you miserable gluten and lactose intolerant vegan who can't have nuts either. There's something for you.
The meal offering is varied and there's plenty of choice. All student restaurants in Helsinki provide a € 2.6 main meal with either meat/fish or a vegetarian option. At the date of writing there was Chicken tikka masala in Aalto Valimo, the CS building had Tuna fish lasgnette while vegetarian resto Kipsari served Brazilian vegetable curry with caribian rice & peas: there's something for everyone.
Most restaurants offer a choice between the standard meal and a slightly more expensive à la carte meal for € 4.95. These meals are fancy dishes in fixed, smaller portions. Some restaurants also always have a pizza to choose at that price point: American pan-pizza or flat bottom? You choose. You still can take the previously mentioned salad of course. Oh, before I forget to mention, in some restaurants a salad-only meal is € 1.80.
With Kanttiinit it's easy to find what you like. You can highlight menu items that fit your taste, for example by selecting vegan and marking that you like mushrooms.
Here's my configuration:
More importantly, you can also filter by allergens, gluten- and lactose contents. This reflects the clear physical labels that are present next to every food item in the student restaurants: a critical feature to make the lives of students with intolerances more comfortable.
The student canteens need to fullfill two other requirements: meals include at least one glass of milk and students can have bread à volonté. However, some restaurants also provide oat and soy drinks next to regular milk to take everyone into account.
The bread offering varies daily with white bread, baguette-style breads and raisin-breads. The traditional Finnish dark rye bread can always be found. Butter is a requirement too, but regularly other tasteful toppings such as beetroot hummus are offered as an alternative.
Finally, restaurants also have sauces and spices that can be added onto the meal. I see many students putting tabasco on meals that they find too bland. Otherwise there is salt, pepper, balsamico, olive oil, sweet-sour sauce, … you name it!
Whether you're trying to gain weight on a heavy workout program or going for a light lunch, you can get just that the amount of food you need. You fill your plate yourself. You can't go back to get more salad or a main meal, but as long as you can fit what you want on one plate you're good. In contrast, the bread bars are practically buffet-style. I often go back for a pumpkin hummus sandwich.
I have to be honest. I over-ate many, many times. But at least I over-ate on tasty vegetables!
There is not only choice of meals, there's also choice of restaurants. My campus here is about 15,000 people big yet it has 13 different student restaurants.
Caterers here try to win students by putting their signature on their offering. This diversity is for the benefit of students, who can pick what he or she likes. For example, the Swedish student union's restaurant Täffä serves a classic smoked salmon every Friday. Fazer Food&Co, a large food company in Finland, started a Wicked Rabbit line in 2017 with the most abundant vegetarian and vegan meals. It reminds me of exclusive vegetarian restaurants in Belgium - except 4 times cheaper. My favorite still is Kipsari, an independent vege/vegan restaurant originally founded in 1960 (!) by students. They're small, personal and offer plates with the best flavors from Europe and Asia. But it doesn't stop there. Internationally known caterer Sodexo is also present and even a lone franchisee of the Subway chain has its place.
Next to that, restaurants care more. They are feedback machines at most places. A few months ago we could fill in a feedback form in exchange for a little desert. It's not just a gimmick, they also act on it. A recurring complaint for Fazer Food&Co in last fall was that they were not offering 2.6 euro vegetarian meals. This semester there has been one every day.
They don't only care about students, they care about the environment too. Many restaurants resell leftover food for reduced prices at the end of the day, with an extra reduction when you bring your own container. And I encountered one where no lunch trays were used. A bit annoying, but it would reportedly save 4000-4500 KWh of power, 12 000 liter of water and 15KG of soap.
Needless to say, I've had an amazing experience when it comes to eating here as a student. The Finns sometimes complain about their restaurants, but I'm sure that's only because they don't know otherwise. As a vegetarian/vegan it's amazing how many options there are! The salad alone would often be enough for me.
Two years ago in Leuven (Belgium) I co-founded GO Ecolicious, a student group at the Green Office for KU Leuven that promoted ecological food in said university. Vegetarian meals at the monopolist student caterer Alma were poor and overpiced. Lactose, gluten and other allergens were not properly labeled, always present in the food and vegan meals were never an option. We lobbied for small changes but got little satisfactory response. The futuristic vision we had there is just a reality in Helsinki. It makes me happy to see that it's possible, but also pains me that Alma is still behaving in prehistoric ways.
So what makes that Alma can not or does not implement these vital changes? In a next article I'll compare the Finnish system to the Belgian system with Alma's case specifically. Stay tuned!
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