Karen Bruns: No student should go hungry
To suggest that an undergraduate student cannot access nutritional food probably conjures up memories of a few days of eating two-minute noodles, or cereal for dinner, before studying at the library or joining friends at a party. When engaging the public on the issue of food insecurity at universities, the response is often the intolerant, school-of-hard-knocks one: mutterings of how students should get part-time work, curb social spending and get off their phones.
The profile of university students today, especially undergraduates, however, is very different from that of previous generations. Many are first-generation students from lower-income and black communities. They travel to university across great distances, some coming from small villages across the platteland or commuting from the Cape Flats as frequently as their National Student Financial Aid Scheme travel allowances permit.
These students face a number of challenges that make paying for a university education more difficult, including two decades of declining state funding of public higher education leading to a significant rise in the cost of tuition, widespread unemployment and growing inequality – add to this the general increase in the cost of goods and services.
Unfortunately, state financing to working-class families is grossly inadequate and poorly administered to enable study. Food allowances are vastly inadequate regardless of whether students live at home, privately or in residence.
Students generally face having to cut down the number of meals they eat so that they can stretch their meal quota over the year. Often their allowances become subsumed into the need to feed multiple family members who are in dire need.
Evidently students who attended schools in poorly resourced communities – whose parents don’t have a tertiary education and whose families receive social grants – are considered to have a high socioeconomic disadvantage and are potentially more at risk of being food insecure.
A recent study by the National Research Foundation revealed that more than 30% of university students are food insecure. These findings were announced at the National Colloquium on Access to Food for Students, hosted in the Western Cape recently, where discussions centred on the role hunger plays in the student drop-out rate.
Food insecurity among our students has largely been an invisible problem. Without reliable, regulated programmes in place, it can be difficult to get reluctant students to identify themselves as food insecure.
Stereotypes of poor students show they would rather eat less often and spend more on fashion and technology choices. These “types” can trick us into thinking that food insecurity is a rite of passage, that hunger and even homelessness among our students is normal. But it is time to admit that we have a serious problem in higher education.
Even at a well-resourced institution such as Stellenbosch University (SU), we hear anecdotal stories of staff and students who feed hungry students out of their own pockets – often over long periods of time. Calls are made by students to our student representative council, asking for interventions and practical help. We found that these calls increase in the last months of the academic year and around exam time. For some students the situation is so dire they have no option but to attend a local soup kitchen and other feeding schemes in and around Stellenbosch.
So, how can a university address the challenge of food insecurity among its students?
For a few months now, SU’s fundraising office has been working with our student communities to identify real social issues that affect our students and for which they have a strong desire to see solutions.
We recently launched the student-inspired #Move4Food drive, which aims to raise R10 million in 100 days to create sustainable food banks on the Stellenbosch and Tygerberg campuses to ensure that, for the next three years, no Matie has to study on an empty stomach.
The SU100 campaign, given that 2018 is our centennial year, will run until November 27, which is the international day of giving.
Students, staff and alumni will engage in a wide range of peer-to-peer fundraising activities, such as participating in the upcoming Sanlam Cape Town Marathon on September 23 to raise funds for the cause.
We will stage our first Giving Day on September 20. Student events include a 24-hour spin-a-thon and a telethon to encourage donations from alumni.
Sponsors and local vendors have been incorporated into the planning and our alumni office has created virtual events in which international alumni can participate.
The donations raised by our students, staff and alumni represent a challenge we hope our existing donors will take up.
This feisty and youthful #Move4Food campaign punches way below the weight of an enormous, overbearing problem of social injustice but it is a response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina call. And as a response, it attempts to bring together our students with staff, alumni and donors to highlight an issue that is real on campuses across the country. It represents the possibility of an immediate solution to a complex issue with which we must jointly engage to find solutions.
Obviously there is a need for a more systemic and national response to the issue. Government spending on public tertiary education has declined, which has driven institutions to shift the cost of education to students and families. We can place many policy proposals to end food insecurity among students on the table, but we cannot have a conversation about higher education affordability without considering higher education funding and how to incentivise governments globally to reinvest in colleges and universities.
- Bruns is senior director at Development & Alumni Relations at Stellenbosch University
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