Too hungry to go to class: South Africa's university students need better support

Hunger affects students’ ability to focus.
Hunger affects students’ ability to focus.
Dean Drobot

The South African university student population has changed over the past 20 years to reflect wider society more closely than before.

It’s no surprise therefore that more students need support than before.

The homes they come from are also struggling.

But what is perhaps surprising is that students who are receiving government financial support are still vulnerable to hunger.

They are also reluctant to use the extra support that’s available, and their health and studies suffer as a result.

Student vulnerability to hunger has emerged as an alarming problem at South African higher education institutions.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme covers school fees, accommodation and a stipend, but is leaving a big gap: food.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where nearly half the students are from poor households, meal vouchers and food hampers have been offered since 2012.

Research by my colleagues and I reviewed whether this is making a difference.

We found that more than half of the students in the study sometimes went hungry and that less than 10% of food insecure students, or those from poor households, had taken advantage of the program.

This is largely due to lack of program awareness, and negative perceptions associated with food handouts.

Food insecurity impacts on students’ ability to focus, attend class and therefore academic outcomes.

An urgent food security intervention is needed to stop this.

More students need to know about the program, and more needs to be done to keep students who are beneficiaries anonymous so that they don’t feel ashamed to access it.

In addition to this, the government should offer financial support to campus food security interventions.

Food insecurity

For the study, we asked 500 university students to participate using a questionnaire that included questions such as “how many meals do you eat on a normal day?” and “in the last 30 days, did you eat smaller meals due to a lack of resources?”

We explored how vulnerable they were to food insecurity using the household food insecurity access scale.

The experience of food insecurity causes certain reactions – such as feelings of uncertainty or anxiety – over food and responses – such as eating less food – which are put into a scale.

The study also examined what the students reported about their eating habits “in normal circumstances”.

We found that a vulnerability to food insecurity was evident in over half (51.3%) of the students.

These students sacrificed a meal due to a lack of resources.

About 10% of them were highly vulnerable to food insecurity.

Because they couldn’t afford it, these students either only ate one meal during the day, or would starve throughout the day and eat only at night.

Food insecurity has a huge impact on health, well-being and academic performance.

Nearly 65% of the students indicated that hunger affected their energy levels and ability to think.

About 30% of them were unable to attend class as a result.

Being food insecure was linked to students’ source of funding and lack of resources.

More specifically, the most food insecure students were sponsored by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and come from impoverished families.

Also Read: Student hunger at South African universities needs more attention

Poverty stigma

A big challenge we found is the negative perceptions students have about poverty and food insecurity.

This stigma led to negative attitudes about food aid: 43% of the students found it embarrassing to be food insecure.

Food insecurity was perceived as a “shameful secret” among students and being a dependant on food handouts was closely associated with being “very poor”.

As a result nearly 40% of food insecure students showed reluctance to use or recommend the much-needed university food security interventions.

Previous studies in the US and South Africa have reported similar trends of “food handout shyness” among food insecure students.

Way forward

Apart from having serious negative effects on their health, food insecurity has a negative impact on the socio-psychological state of the student and can lower their self-esteem.

This will affect their academic performance.

Due to the negative perceptions associated with food aid among university students, and the lack of programme awareness, there needs to be more information available to stakeholders on interventions.

The interventions will also be more sustainable if a well-established monitoring and evaluation system is in place.

To make food security sustainable, I also suggest gardening interventions.

For example, in the US, the establishment of a free community market helped to address the problem of food insecurity and stigma associated with taking advantage of opportunities for free food.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Share your story with us, and we could publish your mail. Anonymous contributions are welcome.

Sign up for Parent24's newsletters.

Read more:

Student hunger at South African universities needs more attention

Poor diets are damaging children’s health worldwide warns UNICEF

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Zama zama crackdown: What are your thoughts on West Village residents taking the law into their own hands?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Authorities should bring in the army already
11% - 1900 votes
Illegal miners can't be scapegoated for all crime
49% - 8728 votes
What else did we expect without no proper policing
37% - 6480 votes
Vigilante groups are also part of the problem
4% - 633 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.