I’ve recently started paying more attention to what I eat, but I’m also becoming unhealthily obsessed with the diets of others. At lunchtime, as we queue to use the staff microwave, I can’t help but peek at other people’s bowls of last night’s chilli, leftover takeaway and tomato soup.
When the weather is warmer, it’s more likely to be salad. But now autumn’s here, at 12 noon on the dot a food-scented fog wafts down the corridor towards my cupboard of an office. A portion of bolognese can captivate my nostrils from eight metres away. And I’m not alone. We all look into each other’s Tupperware in the same way we stare at strangers’ baskets in the supermarket: quietly judgemental, occasionally jealous.
I’m not picky about where I get my food kicks from, and the college canteen is rich ground. Most of the learners go for chips, chicken nuggets or onion rings, whereas most of the staff opt for proper dinners. One lecturer prides himself on being the pioneer of the “pasty butty”: a bread roll with a Cornish pasty in it, sometimes with peas. He tells me it’s delicious. I’m content to take his word for it.
The real way to find out what our students are fuelling themselves on is to look around. Scattered across the common room floor and the pavement outside the main entrance is a patchwork of empty energy drink cans and burger wrappers. Pot Noodles are also popular (although the canteen charges for hot water). When I was a teacher, I used to have that sinking feeling as I saw challenging students swigging bright blue pop at 8.05am. I knew whose classroom they would be in when the E-numbers kicked in.
Food has an important function in faith. Much more than simply fuel, it is a spiritual expression of equality and shared humanity. The langar (kitchen) of the Sikh gurdwara offers sustenance to everyone who asks, regardless of their beliefs. Then there’s the Communion of the Christian tradition, based around the feast Jesus shared. The Jewish Sabbath. The Muslim iftar. Food brings people together. Because we all have to eat, food can be a symbol and facilitator of equality. It gives us something to talk about, too.
Many bemoan the death of the “family meal” at 5.30pm sharp, with meat, two veg and a thorough debrief of the day’s events. But what I see at college – be it in the staffroom, the canteen or the car park – is a version of the same idea. No one seems to eat alone.
Of course, in my middle-class idealism, I’d love to see learners with bowls of hearty broth rather than polystyrene pots of deep-fried carbs. But it probably isn’t going to happen. What I’m cheered by is that eating still seems to be a group activity. Sure, there is the student who munches his sandwiches on his own even though he’s in a room with 200 people. But we do gather with others to eat.
So, no more dinners at my desk – I’ve committed myself to sitting with others, too. I hope that students sharing a table with their chaplain might end up sharing some of their burdens, concerns and joys as well. If they put their mobiles down for long enough to have a conversation, that is.
Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College. @revkatebottley