South Africa


Research highlights alarming hunger among tertiary education students

Research highlights alarming hunger among tertiary education students
(Photo: Unsplash / Banternsaps)

Food insecurity is growing and with Covid-19’s dire impact on the economy, the population faces high levels of hunger. In institutions of higher education, students’ struggle for meals, which threatens their academic success.

At a household level, South Africa is food insecure, despite being ranked the most food-secure country in Africa by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Food Security Index

According to StatsSA, 6.8-million South Africans experienced hunger in 2017. This projection went through the roof at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic because of widespread income losses in households. 

Children from these food-insecure households are also tormented by hunger in universities. 

“Few studies on food security at South African tertiary institutions show an alarming picture mirroring the social divisions of the country. At the University of the Free State, 64.5% of students are food insecure. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal [UKZN], 55% of students from low-income families were food insecure partly because they needed to help their families,” said Paula Knipe, a doctoral researcher at Dullah Omar Institute’s Socio-Economic Rights Project research division at the University of the Western Cape.  

Research suggests that 30% of SA’s university students might be food insecure, compared with 26% of the general population. 

In the past two weeks, students across the country protested against financial exclusion from universities over historical debt estimated to be R9-billion. There is a strong correlation between access to funding and vulnerability to food insecurity.

Reflecting on a study undertaken by the UKZN in 2019 measuring food insecurity among students, Knipe said the study “showed that vulnerability to food insecurity was more prevalent with National Student Financial Aid Scheme [NSFAS] funded students; where 48.1% had no food due to a lack of resources, 39.6% went to bed hungry and 28% of them stayed hungry the whole day and night due to a lack of food”. 

This despite students funded by the aid scheme receiving an allowance for food, tuition fees and accommodation to varying degrees. 

Donald Molema, a social worker at North-West University’s student support services division that distributes food packs, said the office is inundated with pleas from students. 

“We also receive pleas from NSFAS students. They come to the office when in need because they might not have received their allowances yet or they have shared it with their families, leaving them with little to survive on,” he said. 

Molema joined the university in 2017 and says the division went from receiving 500 to 600 applications each semester to 1,000 applications. 

“Based on my assessment of the inflow of the applications, there is a growing need for food relief from students,” he said. 

During SA’s hard lockdown aimed at curbing the first wave of infections, Molema said students and their families were desperate for food and wanted to access the university “just to have food”. 

In the first wave of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) 47% of households reported running out of money for food. The number decreased to 38% in the second wave of the study; however, the proportion rose to 41% again in the third and most recent wave of the study.

The decrease is attributable to the various social grant top-ups from the government which were cut at the end of January. 

There is no statistical data to explain the extent of student hunger in universities and until the #FeesMustFall movement from 2015 to 2017 the issue was not spoken about. 

Despite an increase in awareness about student hunger and more universities undertaking internal research to understand how food insecurity affects their student community, responses to the problem remain largely palliative. 

Universities and other tertiary education institutions are under no legal obligation to address student hunger. Those that offer some form of food relief to indigent students do so with the help of external donors such as Tiger Brands, which provides 4,500 students from six universities with food parcels, according to group media and PR manager, Kanyisa Ndyondya. 

Many universities cite a growing need for food from students with some programmes having been momentarily interrupted by the pandemic. 

“In 2019, the UCT Food Security Programme provided 600 packed lunches daily. This was funded from within the university and through Food and Connect services on campus,” explained Nombuso Shabalala, UCT’s media liaison officer. 

“In 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic, the university provided food vouchers redeemable at cafeterias on campus to 1,143 students. This programme relied on cash donations. Due to Covid-19, we were unable to raise the necessary funds to sustain the programme. However, several individual and retail donors assisted us to provide support on an ad-hoc basis for students who were on campus.”  

Tshwane University of Technology has several food relief programmes for students, including a cafeteria programme that provides three free meals each day to food-insecure students. 

UKZN established a food security task team in February 2021 to complement its existing food scheme programmes. A university task team has identified 1,000 students as needing to receive one meal a day. 

Food insecurity is underestimated as a psychological or emotional stressor that can affect student completion rates and other behaviours. 

Research has highlighted the impact of food insecurity on tertiary students’ educational outcomes and wellbeing. A 2015 study found that severe food insecurity may be contributing to the high attrition rates at universities,” said Knipe. A first step to addressing student food insecurity is the enactment of a framework law on the right to food in South Africa. “Framework legislation on the right to food can help identify the responsible departments for the realisation of the right to food. It can also assist in outlining the various responsibilities of the three tiers of government in realising the right to food.” DM


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