Hunger among university students ranges between 30% to 65%, costing not just the individual students, but also the institutions and the country, writes Oluwafunmilola Adeniyi.
We take it for granted that university students are the least likely to go hungry.
Why would they? After all, they live and study at well-resourced, state-funded institutions that house the cream of the country’s intellectual crop, accounting for less than 5% of the country’s populace. Food surely cannot be in short supply in the rarefied world of books, laboratories and distinguished professors.
The truth, however, is far removed from this elitist facade. The economic and social divisions that bedevil South Africa at large are very much echoed at universities. Research shows that – not by choice – some 30% of students at South African universities either go without meals some days, or are uncertain where their next meal is coming from. And if that is the case at institutions with deep pockets, students’ predicaments are even graver at formerly disadvantaged universities or institutions where black students make up the bulk of the university population. A study at the University of the Free State (UFS), for instance, found that as many as 65% of students are food insecure. I have lost count of the number of students who have shared heart-wrenching experiences on the hard choices they must make on many days, in pursuit of their degrees. They often have to decide between taking a taxi or bus to campus, or getting something to eat. Many times they choose the former, choosing to learn on empty stomachs.
South Africa is not unique in this regard – reports abound of student hunger around the world, even at the most celebrated institutions in North America and Europe. However, this shouldn’t be a motivation to not address this issue. We should rather be geared towards providing solutions, and quickly. That is if we are serious about addressing the larger issues of inequality in our society. Food insecurity in our tertiary institutions is not only an indictment on our country, but also carries an immense cost to both the individual and society at large. The consequences are perhaps only more evident at universities, which hold a special status in the popular imagination and because they are in many ways small, isolated worlds.
It is increasingly argued that food insecurity plays as harmful a role in the high dropout rate of especially black students, as acknowledged obstacles like alienating institutional cultures or lopsided schooling backgrounds. Students fail to live up to their human potential – a hungry student, regardless of ethnicity or background, cannot concentrate in class or on their books. When a student fails, families and communities lose out on that student’s potential contributions; some families barely making ends meet can suddenly find themselves saddled with thousands of rands of debt in student fees and loans. Economies are denied skilled professionals. In addition, the state subsidies that are invested in students go to waste. And efforts by institutions to improve throughput rates – think of the vast resources committed to extended development programmes – are compromised.
Here in South Africa, institutions have devised and implemented their own stopgap responses over the years. Wits University provides monthly food packs to some 2‚500 students. The Stop Hunger Now initiative at the University of Johannesburg serves 7‚000 meals a week. At the University of Western Cape (UWC), the School of Public Health offered breakfasts to hundreds of hungry students twice a week. Likewise, the University of Cape Town distributes 600 lunches a day in its feeding scheme. And food-insecure students at the UFS receive a modest allowance and daily access to one balanced meal through the university’s No Student Hungry programme.
But these initiatives are not sustainable, especially not at cash-strapped universities already buckling under the pressure to fund the studies of thousands of students without the means to pay their own way.
WHAT TO DO
Over the past two years, stakeholders – from students and academics to university executives and representatives from state and civil society organisations – have gathered under the banner of the Right to Food for Students Project in the Dullah Omar Institute and Centre of Excellence in Food Security at UWC, to discuss the most credible ways to address this crisis. And a crisis it is.
A first essential step will be, at the level of national policy, a recognition of students as a vulnerable group. Students are mostly unemployed, are not eligible for social grants, and there is no programme in place akin to the National School Nutrition Programme, which provides meals to around 9.2 million school learners. This will in turn demand a recognition of students’ right to food – a constitutionally guaranteed right for everyone in South Africa. There is an obligation on the state, to create the environment in which all can secure access to food- and this is what must be done within the context of tertiary institutions. This obligation is highlighted in section 27(2) of the Constitution, which notes that “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights”. The state has much to do with regard to legislative and policy development on the right to food generally, and in regard to university students, respectively. There is also a need for emphasis on implementation of policy that already exists to immediately alleviate the problem.
The most pressing concern lies with implementation. Food security as a national issue already falls between the siloed cracks that divide government departments – responsibility is not vested in any specific national department, neither is there currently a multi-department response. This approach is replicated within the context of food (in)security within tertiary institutions. We are also mooting the roles that other stakeholders can play. Universities could, for instance, set up food gardens as many schools do, or could invite local vendors who could provide more affordable meals. Universities liaising with the private sector, specifically the multi-billion rand thriving food sector in South Africa, can also provide low or nocost on-the-go and warm meals, both on campus and at campus residences through the academic year.
Further research in this area is urgently needed. A nationwide survey on the food security status of students in tertiary intuitions would provide a clearer picture of the depth of the problem and which institutions need urgent intervention. There are speculations that students in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges are currently worse off than the data emanating from universities would suggest those students are. There is also insufficient data on the gendered impacts of food insecurity on campuses, and the use of transactional sex for financial gains and/or food as a coping mechanism to secure food.
As a country, we gain immeasurably from an educated, skilled populace. Every hungry student threatens to undercut those gains and promise.
Ms Funmilola Adeniyi is a doctoral researcher with the Socio Economic Rights Project in the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI), University of the Western Cape. She established and manages the Access to Food for Students Project in the DOI.
On 25 July 2019, the Access to Food Project submitted a Petition to the South African Human Rights Commission.