UQ Union provides sustainable social support

25 May 2023

UQ Union has been supporting the UQ student body for more than a century, providing social, health, wellbeing, legal, financial and other services. In recent years, the Union’s commitment to running socially focused and environmentally friendly programs has delivered a raft of sustainability benefits for students and the University community more broadly.  

Yet, if you ask current Union President Ricky Lee, the ideal sustainability outcome would be for many of the Union’s leading food, health and social programs to no longer be required.

“Unfortunately, our initiatives such as the Food Co-Op, Kampus Kitchen and Morning Marmalade are becoming increasingly popular.

“While I’m incredibly relieved and pleased we are able to offer that safety net, it would be much better if students were not experiencing such difficult circumstances,” Ricky says.

Alleviating financial distress, providing food and nutrition

Clint Wooler, general manager of UQ Union, agrees, adding that many of the Union’s current food programs – in place for nearly a decade – are the busiest they’ve ever been.

“I’ve never seen such demand for our services,” he says.

“You want to come down and see the line up on Monday morning when the Food Co-Op opens. People really need this.

“We’ve newly partnered with external charities SecondBite and FoodBank to extend our ability to provide free and low-cost grocery options.”

Meanwhile Kampus Kitchen and Morning Marmalade provide free dinners and breakfasts to students struggling to make ends meet.

“The kitchens [Kampus and Marmalade] run five days a week, morning and night,” Clint also notes. “Last year we didn’t offer that frequency, but we saw a need this year and people just keep coming.

“We cater for 400 a night from Tuesday through Thursday, and 300 on Mondays and Fridays. We run out every night. Breakfast is up to 150 people each morning.”

Many of these programs align with sustainability measures and intentions in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), such as achieving zero hunger and good health and wellbeing, as well as generally reducing inequality. There is also a sustainable communities element, with the communal meal provision bringing together large and diverse groups of students.

Ricky again emphasises that student needs are the key driver for the Union, and that their strong social sustainability outcomes come as a result of student demand.

“Everything we do is guided by what matters most to students. Suppling healthy food to combat hunger and alleviate financial stress is a top priority right now. But we strive to ensure the ways in which we provide these services also reflect the issues they care about.”

Reducing waste, offering sustainable options

Looming large among student sustainability concerns is responsible consumption (another UN SDG), including minimising the use of single-use plastics, as well as how and where waste is disposed of.

Working with UQ Sustainability, UQ Union has implemented several initiatives in recent years to achieve more environmentally friendly food and drink packaging. The Union owns many of the University’s major food outlets and its waste reduction actions can have a meaningful impact.

Examples include using BioPak home compostable plates and cutlery at all Morning Marmalade and Kampus Kitchen meals, and switching to fully compostable food service ware and selling reusable bamboo cutlery packs at all the Union’s food outlets.

Green Caffeen is another program that the Union has got behind, encouraging students to download the app and register to access free, re-usable cups at coffee shops around campus. The Union are also creating behavioural change with their BYO coffee cup campaign, which disincentivises single-use, non-recyclable cups at their cafés.

“It was important to us to flip that perspective on takeaway cups,” says Ricky. “Rather than ‘offering a discount’, we’re positioning that lower price as ‘the norm’ for everyone who uses a re-usable cup (which should be everyone!). And then those who don’t are penalised with an increased rate.”

Another area of food sustainability is the food itself. In other words, the kinds of meals that are served to students through both the free kitchens and the Union-owned food outlets. While meat options are regularly available, vegetarian and vegan food is increasingly sought, Clint and Ricky both say.

“Providing affordable, nutritious and plentiful catering for large numbers naturally lends itself towards vegetarian and vegan food, but it’s also an area where we know many students value that from an ethical perspective too,” Clint explains.

Looking to future initiatives, the Union hopes to soon be able to expand collection of organic waste as a separate waste stream to include both back-of-house and front-of-house at all of its outlets. This will support the University’s holistic commitment to reducing the amount of rubbish it sends to landfill across all its operations and areas.

Employing UQ students and volunteer crews

Such a deep and enduring hub of services and support requires a large network of both paid employees and volunteers.

This is another area where the Union’s commitments align to UN SDGs such as decent work and sustainable communities.

Participating in, and caring for, others’ wellbeing is an important part of creating community, and many of the Union’s programs simply could not happen without their volunteers.

“We’ve got about 150 students on our student union volunteer lists and lists for specific events. And, on top of that, other associations at the University will often send some of their volunteers to help us,” Ricky says.

“Many of our volunteers partake in regular activities with similar groups of people, so that volunteering time becomes quite social, too. Of course, we’re always on the look out for more assistance, so interested students please check out this information and register online.”

The Union also makes a point of hiring UQ students for paid positions wherever possible. Clint says they have at least 100 casual employees working throughout the organisation – many of whom are students.

“Predominantly, we aim to give jobs to UQ students. Where positions are filled by other staff, it’s often about making sure we have experienced people who can train and mentor the students – as well as making sure we meet all of our health and safety requirements in terms of certifications and so on.

“But the Union council and executive body are all students and the whole organisation, from operational through to administrative roles, is very much student led.”

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