Talking Point: The importance of food on board cargo ships - A multidisciplinary approach

November 09, 2020
B10 Princeley R Dmello
© Princeley R Dmello

Talking Point is a series of thought pieces written by experts in the maritime industry, offering insights into different topics affecting seafarers. Food is not only essential in our daily lives; it also plays an important role in our mental wellbeing. This is particularly relevant to seafarers, who are unable to eat out or have a takeaway at the best of times but have been stuck on board in many cases for much longer than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, Dr Polina Baum-Taylor presents the issues surrounding food on board cargo ships and introduces a study that addresses some of those issues. Dr Baum-Taylor is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Solent University, UK; Associate Fellow at Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff University, UK; and Research Associate at Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy, University of Haifa, Israel.

It often feels as if the pandemic has aggravated many of the pressing issues relating to seafarers’ health, particularly seafarers’ mental health, which has reportedly deteriorated as a result of COVID-19. The implications of the pandemic for the shipping industry and its seafarers so far were extensively covered in previous ISWAN newsletters, where Mark Dickinson (Nautilus International), Natalie Shaw (ICS) and Dr Sue Stannard (Haukeland University Hospital) eloquently noted the unique challenges faced by seafarers as a result of COVID-19.

This expert briefing will shift focus slightly away from the pandemic, albeit it is still in the background, and centre on an important ingredient that often impacts seafarers’ physical and mental health, namely, food on board. The aim of this paper is to present the issues surrounding food on board cargo ships and introduce a study that addresses some of those issues.

Food plays an essential part in our lives, and apart from sustaining our existence on a daily basis, it can also be a source of joy, creativity, social gatherings and comfort. Even during the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, despite the initial shortage in some products, most of us could choose to uncover our creative cooking skills and eat at home, or decide to buy and collect food from restaurants and fast-food chains to diversify the food we eat. Some even complained about eating too much during the lockdown.

In the best of times, while working at sea, seafarers do not have the option to eat out or choose their favourite takeaway like people ashore can, but this situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, where many seafarers are stuck on board and in most cases cannot disembark from the ship even during the occasional shore leave.

The global food supply chain is primarily maintained by seafarers, who are responsible for transporting most of the world’s merchandise1. Remarkably, despite the essential role seafarers play in the world trade, there is very scarce research currently done on different aspects of food on board, even though seafarers continue to deliver food globally in difficult and uncertain times.

Some aspects surrounding food on board cargo ships had recently made headlines in maritime related news due to their severity. There have been several cases in recent years, where crews were reportedly not provided with basic food and drink while on board the ship2, being short of food3, or running out of food altogether4.

The reported cases are generally addressed locally through local authorities and welfare organisations, but there are many cases that remain unreported. For example, one of the seafarers interviewed in a previous project5 told me how the company he worked for went into administration, consequently abandoning the ship and its crew, and how his ship was stranded off the shores of Argentina for two years, with no regular or sufficient food provisions and without fresh water. To survive, they had to rely on the kindness of seafarers on board other ships and locals who occasionally provided them with their basic needs.

The importance of food, especially on merchant ships

The ship as a workplace is an all-encompassing environment for seafarers, who work, sleep and spend their free time in the same location, the ship. Seafarers’ basic needs like shelter and food are generally provided while they work on board the ship, or at least as set out by the MLC8. All aspects of life on board are planned and tightly scheduled for all seafarers, with set mealtimes for all the crew working on board.

There are several aspects of food on board worth mentioning here. Some of these issues were previously mentioned in academic research, for example a study noting the main issues relating to food and nutrition for seafarers working on board merchant ships6, as well as a report that (among other aspects) notes seafarers’ ‘unhealthy’ eating habits on board7.

© Maksym Gapchuk

Current legislation relating to food on board

The global nature of the shipping industry often makes it particularly challenging to regulate and even more so to enforce these regulations across vessels sailing the seas.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 incorporates guidelines relating to food on board, setting minimal requirements and standards for food safety, food provision and training for ship’s cooks8.

However, as Oldenburg and others state: ‘A critical appraisal of the Maritime Labour Convention [...] reveals that the nutritional situation on board is neither standardised nor mandatory [...], but adapted to the standard of each member state6.

This makes food a grey area in terms of regulation and enforcement of standards worldwide, as well as the types and quality of food seafarers are served with.

The ship as a multicultural, isolated and ‘unhealthy’ environment

One important aspect of food relates to the global nature of the industry, which inevitably leads to diverse dietary habits in multi-ethnic crews. For example, the ships I have sailed with had between 25-30 seafarers originating from at least 9-10 different countries. The diverse crew composition could potentially lead to different experiences of food on board, both from the receiving end and that of the ship’s cook.

One cook from India noted how he had to accommodate the different nationalities on board and ‘make everyone happy’, so every 15 days he rotated the menu to diversify seafarers’ menu, cooking ‘Indian, Filipino and European’ dishes to appease different tastes on board. On another ship, a cook from the Philippines always planned the menus for the different nationalities on board by cooking individual dishes almost at every meal to cater for seafarers’ personal taste.

Opinions on what counts as good or tasty food vary between seafarers as they would between individuals in any other setting ashore, but the difference between the ship and the shore comes down to the availability of alternative food options while seafarers are at sea. Seafarers have little or no control over the selection of food on board, and it is even more evident in long voyages where the ship’s provisions can run very low if the unexpected happens or if there was no proper planning or budgeting for the voyage.

An additional aspect of work relating to food worth mentioning relates to seafarers’ work schedules and shifts on board which often leads to irregular mealtimes. While mealtimes are generally scheduled around the same time every day, seafarers’ shifts might not coincide with these mealtimes. This normally means seafarers need to reheat the food and often eat by themselves, or in cases where there was no food left aside for them, they will have to find something else to eat, and in some cases will be required to cook for themselves.

Under normal circumstances, individuals would be responsible for buying and preparing their own food, but under the unique circumstances of the ship, as was the case for many decades, seafarers’ busy workload often means that they do not have the time or capacity to cook, and cooks often ‘fill a function which the industrial worker's home usually takes care of, the buying, preparing, and serving of food’9.

Consuming ‘unhealthy’ food while at sea

As opposed to people working ashore, seafarers cannot go out and buy a meal or order a takeaway when they do not like the choice of food on board or if they simply do not have enough food. Sometimes it is possible to buy sweet or savoury snacks on board in the ship’s store where there is one available, but these do not generally count as neither healthy nor nutritious food choices. This, combined with a stressful, isolated and overwhelming work environment for many seafarers10, could often lead to the consumption of unhealthy and ‘comfort’ food6,7,16.

For seafarers working on board under stressful and intense conditions, food is often seen as the only comfort, carrying much more than a fulfilment of the basic need to survive. When thinking about ‘comfort’ foods, these are often prepared in a simple or traditional style and may have a sentimental or nostalgic appeal, perhaps reminding us of home, family, and/or friends11. However, these foods might be considered generally unhealthy due to their fat and sugar content, even though they are claimed to be ‘good for the soul’, potentially bring a temporary respite from day-to-day troubles12.

The final aspect worth mentioning links to seafarers’ limited opportunities for physical activity in their leisure time. Limited opportunities to exercise could often be linked to the absence of exercise facilities like gyms, basketball/football courts or swimming pools on board13. Lacking time or energy due to increased workload14 could also be a reason for this.

The combination of ‘unhealthy’ foods and limited exercise could lead to unhealthy habits which has been noted as a growing concern with regards to seafarers, where seafarers are reportedly overweight or obese6.

Food budgets allocated to seafarers

Interestingly, the planned food budgets allocated to seafarers on board are not the same across all ships and are generally determined by shipping companies. This allocation of funds does not generally take into account seafarers’ dietary requirements like vegetarianism, practices of not eating certain foods for moral, religious, or health reasons, or price of food provisions in different countries.

Additional factors not taken into account include the amount eaten by seafarers on a daily basis, and seafarers’ physical activity and energy expenditure based on the different roles and departments they occupy. Decisions on food pricing and composition could benefit from empirical evidence based on scientific research.

Despite the fact that there are minimum requirements and recommended budgets allocated to food on board, empirical evidence regarding the nutritional intake or energy expenditure on board cargo ships is very scarce. Publications include, for example, an overview of seafarers’ health on board relating to food6, coronary risks identified amongst seafarers on board German-flagged vessels15, links between lifestyle choices and health amongst Croatian seafarers16, and some initial findings from the seafarer nutrition study conducted amongst European and Kiribati seafarers17. These form an important basis for the study of nutrition amongst seafarers, but a further investigation into those issues is needed.

© Pieter Dekker

Preliminary study of food

Due to the importance of food on board as noted above, a research project at Solent University has been incepted, with the aim of exploring issues relating to seafarers’ food habits on board ships. The main objective of the study is to examine what constitutes seafarers’ food intake, and to identify the factors that influence their food consumption habits on board merchant vessels.

By completing the study, I am hoping to contribute to new ways in which food is prepared and served on board merchant ships, to facilitate changes in ways shipping companies calculate expenses around food, as well as changes in legislation relating to seafarers’ food on board e.g. contingencies for cases where ships run out of food, efficient pricing for individual food intake with consideration of the country in which the ship gets its provisions, and setting up consistent standards for specialised training for cooks which takes into account the complexities of life and work at sea.

To explore further issues surrounding food and health on board cargo ships, I have teamed up with a nutritionist from Solent University. The nutritionist will be able to identify and analyse eating patterns among participants and conduct a nutritional breakdown of seafarers’ food as well as assess seafarers’ physical activity and energy expenditure.

Prior to undertaking the study, a preliminary study has been conducted in order to test the research design in a smaller setting. The initial stage has been funded by Solent University’s research and innovation seed funding in order to examine the feasibility of the larger research design.

The preliminary study was conducted in a local setting, where participants were chosen according to the roles they held, bearing similarity to the departments that exist on board ships i.e. Deck, Engine and Galley. Accordingly, six people were chosen from an Office, a Lab and a kitchen to be able to determine their food habits and physical activity levels over a period of two days. As the idea behind this study was to examine the research design, it was a successful run of the project that showed what was the best way of collecting data in a ship-like environment and following the study some changes will be made to the larger project design.

A view to the future – and an invitation to take part

There is no denying the importance of food to our daily lives, and it seems to be even more so for seafarers working on board ships. The results and findings of the planned project will benefit seafarers and their employers, as it has the potential to save money in the short and long term, and to facilitate a healthier and happier crew on board. Apart from providing some information about issues relating to food on board ships, this paper can be seen as an open invitation to contribute to the project.

In the face of the global pandemic, data collection has become challenging at times and impossible for some settings altogether. Members interested in helping out would make a difference by facilitating access to seafarers working on board, by taking part in interviews in order to paint a picture of food provision on board and assist by spreading the word about the project to relevant stakeholders. If you feel you could contribute to the project in any capacity, if you wanted to discuss potential collaboration or if you would like more information, please contact the author at with the subject line ‘Food project ISWAN’.

Polina is a postdoctoral researcher in social sciences, with a particular focus on employment in the shipping industry, in Solent's Faculty of Sport, Health, and Social Sciences.

She completed a PhD project (2018) entitled: ‘Careers and Labour Market Flexibility in Global Industries: The case of seafarers’, which focuses on the flexibilisation of labour among seafarers. Part of the SIRC-Nippon fellowship (2012-2016), Polina was generously funded by the Nippon Foundation throughout her studies in Cardiff. Polina also holds an MA in Anthropology (2012) from the University of Haifa, obtained by completing a written dissertation entitled: 'From sea to shore: An ethnographic account of seafaring experience'. Additionally, she completed a BA in Sociology, Anthropology and Human Resources (2009) at the University of Haifa and a PGDip in SSRM (Social Sciences Research Methods 2013) from Cardiff University.

She developed a genuine interest in seafarers after finishing her BA, which almost led to her joining the maritime industry as a Merchant Navy officer. However, her eagerness to pursue an academic education as well as contribute to seafarers’ welfare resulted in Polina embarking on the study of seafarers as her main research subject.

Polina is an associate fellow at the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), Cardiff University; and a research associate at the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy, University of Haifa, Israel.

1 UNCTAD. 2019. Review of Maritime Transport 2019. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development): UN.

2 ‘BHP Ignores Pleas To Help Starving Crew – ITF’ February 2019 in ‘Marine Insight’ (accessed on 28 September 2020)

3 ‘Bulker crew said to be underpaid and short of food’ July 2015 in ‘Insurance Day’ (accessed on 28 September 2020)

4 ‘German Bulk Carrier Detained After Crew Complain Of No Food, Bullying And Denial Of Shore Leave’ March 2019 in ‘Marine Insight’ (accessed on 28 September 2020)

5 Baum-Talmor, P. 2018. Careers and Labour Market Flexibility in Global Industries: The case of seafarers. PhD Thesis, SIRC, Cardiff University.

6 Oldenburg, M., V. Harth, and H.-J. Jensen. 2013. Overview and prospect: food and nutrition of seafarers on merchant ships. International Maritime Health. 64 (4):191-194.

7 Sampson, H., N. Ellis, I. Acejo, and N. Turgo. 2017. Changes in seafarers' health 2011-2016: A summary report. Cardiff: SIRC.

8 ILO. 2006. Maritime Labour Convention 2006. International Labour Conference, Geneva: International Labour Office (ILO). (accessed on 28 September 2020)

9 Aubert, V., and O. Arner. 1959. On the social structure of the ship. Acta sociologica. 3 (4):200-219.

10 Baum-Talmor, P. in press. Careers at sea: Exploring seafarer motivations and aspirations. A chapter in The World of the Seafarer: Qualitative Accounts of Working in the Global Shipping Industry, edited by V. Gekara and H. Sampson. United Kingdom: Springer.

11 Locher, J.L., W.C. Yoels, D. Maurer, and J. Van Ells. 2005. Comfort foods: an exploratory journey into the social and emotional significance of food. Food & Foodways. 13 (4):273-297.

12 Spence, C. 2017. Comfort food: A review. International journal of gastronomy and food science. 9:105-109.

13 Ellis, N., H. Sampson, I. Acejo, L. Tang, N. Turgo, and Z. Zhao. 2012. Seafarer accommodation on contemporary cargo ships. Cardiff, UK: Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC).

14 Ellis, N., and H.A. Sampson. 2008. The global labour market for seafarers working aboard merchant cargo ships 2003. Cardiff: SIRC.

15 Oldenburg, M., H.-J. Jensen, U. Latza, and X. Baur. 2008. Coronary risks among seafarers aboard German-flagged ships. International archives of occupational and environmental health. 81 (6):735-741.

16 Slišković, A., and Z. Penezić. 2017. Lifestyle factors in Croatian seafarers as relating to health and stress on board. Work. 56 (3):371-380.

17 Zyriax, B.-C., R. von Katzler, B. Jagemann, J. Westenhoefer, H.-J. Jensen, V. Harth, and M. Oldenburg. 2018. Food offerings on board and dietary intake of European and Kiribati seafarers: cross-sectional data from the seafarer nutrition study. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology. 13 (1):1-8.

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