‘Student hunger a problem’

2013-11-04 00:00

UP to 8 500 students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) are seriously hungry, and most are too embarrassed to talk about it.

One of the sessions at a five-day Food Festival, which ended on the Pietermaritzburg campus yesterday, highlighted the problem of students who experience “serious” or “critical” food insecurity. The festival, organised by the university’s Paulo Freire Project and other interested parties, looked at the politics of food and local and international responses to unequal food systems.

“A lot of people think it’s embarrassing to talk about hunger,” said student Rethabile Moletsane, who told her story of struggling to survive. Nick Munro, one of the festival organisers and a contributor to a survey of 1 083 students from the Pietermaritzburg campus between 2007 and 2010, said 16,1% reported serious levels of vulnerability, and 4,7% experienced severe to critical levels of vulnerability to food insecurity. He said 10% reported feeling worried “often or almost always” about where their next meal was coming from, and had suffered from poor concentration and fatigue due to a lack of food.

Munro said if the results were extrapolated to refer to the university’s entire 40 000-strong student population, this meant that about 8 500 students were likely to be seriously affected and about 2 000 of that total were “critically vulnerable”.

Rossella Meusel, counsellor in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Sciences, said student hunger is “definitely a problem. But it’s a systemic problem, it’s not only about feeding them. Here, you have a microcosm of the country.”

Shelley Barnsley, manager of student support in the same college, said her office handed out food parcels or vouchers to about 10 students a month from the combined Howard College, Westville and Maritzburg campuses. The vouchers are part of the university’s Food Security Programme, which was started in 2012, where students who are identified and qualify as needing help are given one voucher a day that entitles them to a warm meal at one of the canteens on campus. The food parcels are donated by Gift of the Givers and are part of the college’s own ad-hoc food support.

“I think the problem is more widespread than it appears, because the people who come to us are really desperate,” said Barnsley. All the counsellors said there is stigma attached to admitting that you are hungry and need help. In order to qualify for assistance, students must be assessed and counselled.

Angeline Stephens, manager of student support services in the College of Humanities, said they had formed their own Food Security Task Team in May this year in response to the recurring problem, which they saw as having an adverse effect on academic performance. She said the head of college, Professor Cheryl Potgieter, “recently donated R10 000 of her salary to the task team for use in its 2014 programme, which will offer holistic support to our most vulnerable students. In addition to empowering our students, the task team aims to raise awareness around this issue and to advocate for university-wide programmes and policy formulation that will benefit all vulnerable students.”

Providing assistance is complicated and not all staff agree on how the problem should be tackled. “It’s a very complex problem,” said Sherri Seetal, who co-ordinates funding for the Food Security Programme. “We’ve tried food hampers, but some students sold them or sent the food home. Others said they can’t cook, or they don’t have time or utensils.”

According to a counsellor who did not wish to be identified, the availability of food parcels is not advertised because when they were first introduced, counselors were inundated with requests. “A lot of students on financial aid [a government grant that allocates R695 per month] are misusing it for clothing accounts and coming in for food when they could be using their financial aid.”

However, Barnsley said the chances that the assistance is being exploited are not huge. She said the food parcels worked better than the vouchers, which only provided for one meal a day. “It allows the person flexibility. They can cook when they need to.” She said if the food is also going to other people, “that’s the reality. Lots of our students have children. Poverty is so widespread, we have to help where we can.”

Yeki Mosomothane from the University of the Free State spoke about the No Student Hungry campaign started in 2011 by Professor Jonathan Jansen, which feeds 6 000 students. “We need to acknowledge and overcome stigma,” he said. “Some students are still ashamed to speak out and ask for help.” He added that it’s a problem that many students have to feed their families. “For the university, the individual case becomes a family case.”

The crux of the matter, said Barnsley, “is you can provide access to university, but if [the students] don’t have the means to support and feed themselves, then how can you expect them to succeed? We need to look at real access. We need to look at their other needs.”

•To see a film by Honours student Mzwah Makhanya about student food security at UKZN, go to our website at www.witness.co.za

Students learn how to grow their own food

ZAMA* comes from a small rural town and shares a room with seven other students. They all receive a financial aid stipend of R695 per month, which must also pay for toiletries. “Everything I eat comes from financial aid. My parents can’t afford to give me any money. Towards the end of the month we all share, no one has food,” she says.

Zama’s monthly grocery list includes:

• a 10 kg bag of mielie meal costing about R37

• four cans of beans and six cans of fish

• braai pack (about R44). This lasts two to three weeks and is used in stews

• eggs

• vegetables bought from street vendors

She said some of her room mates run out of food after two to three weeks. “Then they eat my food. Some people buy clothes, laptops or expensive phones instead of food. This … keeps you poor.”

* Not her real name.

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