There is a common perception that students represent the elite, and so cannot possibly suffer from hunger. But this is a myth. In fact, the available evidence suggests that students are more likely to be food insecure – they are not able to access adequate nutritious food on a daily basis – than others in the general population.
I reviewed a number of studies conducted at several South African universities over the past five years. These show that, on average, nearly a third of students at the country’s universities live with food insecurity. The actual numbers might be even higher since some students may be ashamed to admit that they’re poor and hungry.
Official statistics estimate that 26% of the country’s broader population is food insecure. One obvious reason why students are more vulnerable to food insecurity is that they have effectively left home but they are not yet employed, so they have low or zero income and depend on family support, bursaries or loans.
There are several underlying drivers of hunger among students. These include the fact that they come from poor families – poverty stands at 55% nationally – as well as the fact that living costs are high.
But the strongest predictor of food insecurity among students is race – an unsavoury legacy of apartheid. For instance, 24% of white students but 79% of black African students at the University of the Free State were found to be food insecure in 2013.
Even though South Africa’s democracy is now 23 years old, there are still no signs of improvement in several key indicators of inequality, including the racial distribution of hunger.
Food insecurity among students isn’t confined to South Africa. Studies at several US campuses have found that between 14% and 59% of students are food insecure. The national prevalence is 14.5%. As in South Africa, black students in the US are disproportionately at risk.
How students cope
The consequences of food insecurity for students can be very serious. Being hungry can impair academic performance or even lead to students dropping out. It can also cause mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide.
Hunger reduces the ability to concentrate on studying, to write fluently, or to perform well in exams. Researchers have suggested that not having access to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food could be one of the reasons why almost half of South African university students never graduate.
Students respond to food insecurity and hunger by finding alternative sources of food, like eating with friends or relatives. They also ration their consumption by eating cheaper food, only drinking fluids or fasting. They borrow money or seek work so they can afford more or better food. But taking on work reduces their time and energy for studying.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) disburses loans to pay for fees, accommodation and living expenses for poor students. It also provides food vouchers. But it often disburses the funds as well as the vouchers late. In addition, the vouchers aren’t enough to ensure students can feed themselves.
Universities, NGOs and students themselves are trying to help. Many universities have introduced food banks, food gardens, meal vouchers and free breakfasts or hot lunches. The University of the Free State launched a “No Student Hungry” campaign. NGOs such as Stop Hunger Now and Gift of the Givers are feeding thousands of university students. One student at the University of the Western Cape set up a Facebook page called “Fairy Godmother”, where struggling students write candidly about their financial needs and invite others to contribute donations.
These initiatives provide essential support to hungry students, but they tend to be uncoordinated and under-funded. They often depend on the generosity of university staff and the resources of each university – which only reproduces preexisting inequalities between wealthier and poorer universities.
Besides, academics and university staff should not be responsible for feeding their students. Ultimately, this is a government responsibility. The right to food is in South Africa’s Constitution, but it isn’t being upheld for South Africa’s students.
Hunger on South Africa’s campuses is an invisible crisis that should be prioritised at the highest policy level. Efficient management at NSFAS is urgently needed to disburse funds to students on time.
The government’s commitment to free higher education for poor and working class students must include not only fees but basic needs, especially food. This might require a new vision for financing higher education in South Africa: one that takes students’ daily realities of hunger and deprivation into account.
This article is based on the author’s keynote address at the National Colloquium on Access to Food for Students in South African Tertiary Institutions on 14 August 2018.