There is an under-reported, under-recognised crisis of “hidden hunger” among students on university campuses throughout South Africa. This was the key message on the first day of the two-day National Colloquium on Access to Food for Students in South African Tertiary Institutions, currently underway in Cape Town.
Studies of food insecurity are pointing to the conclusion that hunger levels among students are higher than they are in SA’s general population. This was the sober message from the keynote address delivered by Dr Stephen Devereux, the South Africa-UK Research Chair for the National Research Foundation.
Dr Devereux said current estimates, based on surveys and other research done on campuses around the country, show that more than 30 percent of students are food insecure. In contrast, 26 percent of SA’s entire population is food insecure. “The universities use different methodologies, but the overall picture is that campus food insecurity is much higher than we realised.”
It was a myth that students represent the “elite” and “cannot possibly be food insecure or hungry”. In fact students were more likely to be food insecure than others in the population.”
He added that the failures of the beleaguered National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)played a key role in hunger because of long delays with disbursement of funds and the inadequacy of food vouchers.
“It is already August and many students throughout SA have not yet received their bursaries. Many of the students come from very poor families and really rely on these bursaries. This failure to pay has affected them severely,” he said.
Devereux added that hunger had a huge role to play in the dropout rate of students. “If people are hungry, they cannot concentrate, they become stressed and anxious. A number of these students are working on top of studying and this too affects their academic performance.”
Students were simply unable to afford the high costs of living, including food price inflation, the VAT increase and soaring transport prices. Many students felt such shame at being hungry that the problem could be under reported.
Devereux said in SA, race is the strongest predictor of student food insecurity, stressing that the apartheid legacy had still not been overcome.
This problem is concentrated among black and coloured students. We cannot have poverty reduction and the transformation of South Africa's economy and society without more black graduates.
Devereux described how one of the UWC students he supervises is working as a car guard to try to pay his bills to survive. Another lives in an area where there are gangs. “She is poor and has told me she has to finish her thesis in five months so that she can start working to feed her family. A thesis normally takes a year. Many students are suffering from these sort of problems,” he added.
On the positive side, Devereux said, there were many initiatives, such as food banks and other projects being undertaken by universities, NGOS, civil society and the students themselves where needy students can access food.
Examples include: the University of Witwatersrand has a food bank which provides 2500 students with one food pack per month, valued at R430, and which includes corned beef, rice, lentils, beans and peanut butter; the Masidleni Daily Meal Project provides a hot lunch on weekdays to 900 students and the SVP Soup Kitchen, run by the Holy Trinity Catholic Church offers lunch to Wits students from Monday to Friday; Wits Inala promotes food self-sufficiency among students by cultivating food gardens on campus.
At the University of Johannesburg, the Stop Hunger Now initiative, funded by private donations, provides 7000 meals a week.
At the University of Free State, the No Student Hungry campaign, started by former vice chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen, provides a daily allowance to food insecure students to enable them to buy meals at selected food outlets on campus.
The University of KZN provides assistance to students in the form of food hampers or meal vouchers, as well as offering counselling to students in need. NGO Gift of the Givers also provides food parcels to students in Pietermaritzburg.
The University of Zululand has an institutionalised meal plan.
The University of Cape Town provides students living in residences with vouchers to buy food.
At the University of Western Cape, the Gender and Equity Unit runs a food bank that offers food parcels to needy students, but has limited supplies. Economics and Management Sciences supports students in need, but only reaches small numbers. The School of Public Health established a breakfast programme that gives breakfast to students on campus twice a week.
Ikamva Lethu is run by the Student Representative Council, and gave food to first year students in residence. Tiger Brands and UWC administration distributed food packs to identified food insecure students.
“There is also an amazing initiative at UWC called The Fairy Godmother, initiated by a student who saw how students were struggling and set up a Facebook page where people can write up their needs for financial aid and invite others to contribute.”
Devereux said the initiatives were inspiring. “Most universities around the country have these small ad hoc schemes providing some kind of support. But they are not co-ordinated or funded on a large scale. Importantly, they take the responsibility away from the government and from NSFAS, both of whom should be doing a much better job. Fully costed bursaries and more efficient management are needed.
“In the end this is the government’s responsibility. The right to food is in the Constitution but this right is not being upheld for thousands of students. This crisis must be addressed urgently.”
The colloquium is organised by the Socio-Economic Rights Project at the Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape, in collaboration with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security.