Catering at Wageningen University: an object lesson in monopoly

There is a little town in The Netherlands called Wageningen. And this quaint little town happens to proudly calls itself “The City of Life Sciences” and that is because it is home to Wageningen University and Research, which is a university with an emphasis on the life sciences. I study at this university. I have lunch at this university. 

Since Wageningen is a remote little town by the Rhine, connected to the outside world by neither highways nor train stations, it means that the university is practically in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farms. So either you bring your own lunch, or you buy lunch from one of the caterers on campus. Since I prefer a hot lunch and my kitchen is too big to carry with me on my bike, the only realistic option remaining is to buy lunch from one of the caterers.

Thus I buy my lunch there, but purely out of convenience, certainly not because it is any good. Or cheap, for that matter. Yet until about a year ago, there was a splendid alternative to the campus caterers. There was one restaurant in Wageningen that offered quite a unique lunch delivery service, with a reasonably priced menu, specifically aimed at students of the university. It was a Chinese restaurant called ‘Eastern Express’. It would take lunch orders via telephone in the morning and around noon a little van would bring the ordered items to one of the parking lots on the university’s campus. There, the ordered dinners were dispensed by the driver to a rather long queue of students. Because of the kind of food and the unique delivery method, this phenomenon became known as ‘the Chinese van’. It was quite popular.

I tried it myself a few times. And I loved it. The food was not only more reasonably priced, but also unquestionably of superior quality compared to what the kitchens of the campus caterers produced. However, it was also less convenient; you had to place your order on time, and you had to be able to pick it up on time. If you were too late in placing your order, or failed to materialize at the drop-off point at noon, then it simply meant no lunch for you. Yet it was obvious that such inconveniences were no match for the luring promise of a decent and affordable dinner. In fact, I am certain that if all but the most autistic clientele would have had no issue with the rather inflexible conditions, that the on-site caterers would have been quietly lining up to file for bankruptcy before the end of the semester.

And justly so, for this is how it goes in a democratic world with an open and healthy free-market mechanism. In such a market, natural selection should quickly relegate greedy talentless marsbar frying cooks back to those sticky sweaty snackbars from whence they came. And if the catering on campus is overpriced, or qualitatively lacking, then mechanisms of supply and demand should immediately correct the discrepancy. That way, both buyers and sellers get the best deal. However, it would appear that the campus caterers have their own little benevolent dictator looking after them: the head of facility at the university.

For five years, the ‘Chinese van’ made its deliveries without any problems. That is, until last year. Last year, all of a sudden, the head of the university’s facility department proclaimed that the ‘Chinese van’ was henceforth prohibited from making lunch deliveries on campus grounds. The reasons given for the ban are the littering, the obnoxious smell of Chinese food, the inability to control the food quality, and the fact that it was competing with the caterers on campus.

The first two reasons make no sense. After all, it is the students who litter. Why not simply prohibit littering? And am I not allowed to bring my own smelly cheese to lunch? Or buy Chinese food from the campus caterer? Yes, I can. So the reason relating to the  smelliness of Chinese food also stinks. And concerns about food quality also make no sense to me. The Chinese van belongs to a restaurant and all restaurants must meet the legal food safety standards, just like the campus caterers. So now just one argument remains: the ‘Chinese van’ was successfully competing with the food caterers on campus. And instead of lowering the prices, or improving the quality, they complained to the benevolent little dictator. There then, I think, we have reached the heart of the matter.

You see, the caterers on campus pay Wageningen university a considerable sum of money for the exclusive privilege to overcharge unsuspecting students for their sustainable eco-friendly tripe. And the caterers expect something in return for all that money: a monopoly. For that reason, the board cannot stand idly by while external restaurateurs with their avant garde “supply-and-demand” way of thinking frustrate this monopoly. After all, isn’t this kind of revolutionary idea also considered dangerous in many totalitarian regimes, for precisely the same reason? That is why they are usually outlawed there too. So it would seem that, in this matter at least, the head of facility has demonstrated a remarkable degree of congruence with the same line of thought one commonly associates exclusively with despots. Interesting.

Hundreds of students petitioned to reverse the ban, but it was to no avail. Interestingly, many students also did not understand all the commotion. “Why don’t you bring your own lunch?”—some of them would say. However, I noticed that the students who said such things were Dutch. The average Dutchman’s idea of “lunch” is to take two slices of stale bread, smear some rancid butter on them and then sandwich some factory cheese in between; the kind of cheese that tends to sweat after spending a few hours in a warm backpack. I thought it was funny to read. A bit like the pope saying: “Why use condoms, when you can also just not have sex?” Both the pope and that Dutch person are technically correct, but they are not being realistic. 

But I digress. A year has passed since the ban came into effect, and we all gradually learnt to accept that this was the way things were going to be. And I honestly thought that would have been the end of the controversy. But no. The lunch maffia has recently announced that all Mondays shall henceforth be ‘meatless’ and that they shall therefore be known as “Meatless Mondays”. What a brilliant idea! As if Mondays weren’t miserable enough by themselves. 

I find it really amusing that a major reason for the ‘Meatless Monday’ is that the university thinks it is necessary to increase awareness of a particular sustainability issue amongst her students and employees. For doing so at Wageningen University, of all places, is essentially like bringing owls to Athens. You know what? I should think that it would be a capital idea for me to organize a campus barbecue every Monday. Some grilled souvlaki will do very well, I think—a bit like bringing Athens to the owls instead. I imagine it would exponentially increase awareness, even in these birdbrained halfwits, of what good food should taste like.

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