Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Student Hunger

Lack of coverage of higher education institutions in right-to-food policies is perpetuating student hardship

Student hunger is among the list of issues preventing students from taking part fully in academic activities (Photo: npr.org/Wikipedia)

In its second year, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the inequalities in South Africa’s higher education sector into sharp relief. Hunger is among the list of issues preventing students from fully taking part in academic activities.

Around this time in 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19 in South Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council, in collaboration with the Higher Education and Training health, Wellness and Development Centre, surveyed a wide range of themes including food security among students. Outcomes of the study suggested: 1% of students were unable to buy their food during lockdown, 10% relied on food donations and 15% went hungry on some days.

Herman Esterhuizen, media liaison at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said the institution has put interventions in place to address the challenge of students who may be facing hunger. Among these is a formal student meal assistance programme. Throughout the years, the university has been providing students at least two cooked meals per day for the entire year. Due to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the institution has reviewed the student meal assistance programme. This resulted in the change from providing cooked meals to the distribution of meal packs as the provision minimised physical contact as well as the risk of students contracting the virus. The programme supports about 6,000 students.  

Yet some of the students experiencing hunger said they did not know about the programme. 

In email interviews with students from UJ and Wits, many said 2021 had been very difficult and a lot of them were more hungry.

“Considering we are more than halfway through and some of us are yet to receive our funds. I fully depend on the bursary for my living costs which include food and rent. I have accumulated so much debt borrowing food and money to survive, which is also not always within reach. I am very hungry,” said a UJ student.

“The release of funds from various bursaries as I have known them (I am now receiving it for the second year) has always been delayed. But this year’s delay is exceptional. I came back from home at the end of January and to date I have not received anything. The situation is more than difficult to handle. Luckily, I am among the lucky few that have a landlord who is very sympathetic to students and very understanding. She has not chased me out of the house. My supervisor has also helped me with groceries and in the winter, she bought me a blanket”, said a foreign postgraduate student at Wits.

Another student from UJ said: “With many students like me who do not know what to do, and are frustrated – especially if they come from a very poor background with no one from home to bail us out – the hunger story is the same so going back is not even an option.

“Covid makes everything frustrating. Living with anxiety and uncertainty, it becomes difficult to sometimes concentrate on studies or focus fully. When I send emails to finance, they say they are working on it and sometimes they do not even respond to reassure me. It makes me conclude that they do not care about us and our plight whether we are sleeping in the cold and hungry. At one point in mid-May, they responded saying there is so much backlog that they are dealing with and they will attend to me as soon as possible.” 

According to the senior communications officer at Wits, Buhle Zuma, amid delayed bursary funds the university decided to help the confirmed National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students while waiting for the scheme to finalise processes.

“The affected students have been provided stipends, access to residences, and meals with the view of supporting their academic success and wellbeing. In addition, the university has several initiatives to support vulnerable students.” 

The Food Bank has been fully operational even during hard lockdown, while a few of the support services mentioned above have been affected by Covid-19. The Food Bank is a repository of non-perishable items mainly supported by Tiger Brands and sustains up to 5,000 students in need annually. Supplies can be collected every Tuesday and Thursday from 2pm to 4pm. Alternatively, students can email a staff member.

Bianca Nonhlanhla Skhosana, a fourth-year medical student at Wits, is one of hundreds of students at the university who have had to turn to a food parcel programme for help. Her story and that of other students in the same predicament have been featured on BBC News.

Several media reports and studies have confirmed the deepening food insecurity among university and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college students.

At the beginning of the 2021 academic year, the unaffordability of higher education for many students and their families was a topical issue again across South Africa’s 26 public universities. Capturing the headlines in March was yet another Fees Must Fall student protest against financial exclusion and clearance of students’ historical debts. It started in Braamfontein, Johannesburg and spread to campuses across the country. 

Although the call drew more attention to the NSFAS, there isn’t much work going on as more students are still going hungry following the delayed payments from the scheme.

The article, “We Eat Sushi Now”: Targeting Hungry Students at South African Universities”, by University of the Western Cape (UWC) professors in gender studies Mary Hames and Desiree Lewis, illustrates the food culture and patterns of students at UWC. According to Hames and Lewis, the notion of the “hungry student” has been constructed from a neoliberal perspective, in support of free-market capitalism, deregulation and reduction in government spending.

Hames and Lewis are of the view that student hunger is a result of experiences of individual and structural poverty and ignorance by South African tertiary institutions’ managerial and financial prioritisation which actively undermine students’ right and ability to eat nutritious food.

“Student hunger in tertiary institutions is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. This is amplified by the little attention given to how students experience food or the lack thereof, coupled with the strong relationship between access to funding and vulnerability to food security.”

Institutions of higher education have an important role in addressing food insecurity for students, and it is time the government steps up to the plate to provide a government-led policy process that produces a long-term and sustainable solution. DM/MC

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