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New approaches needed to beat food insecurity among students

Author: Mologadi Makwela

The problem of food insecurity in South African universities is a reality – but is not well documented. There is a big need for research on the issue to be published and made available – and for streamlining in terms of methodology.

(Published - 15 August 2018)

New approaches needed to beat food insecurity among students

The problem of food insecurity in South African universities is a reality – but is not well documented. There is a big need for research on the issue to be published and made available – and for streamlining in terms of methodology.

This was the view put forward by the University of Free State's Dr Lucia Meko. Dr Meko was involved in research in 2015 on the nutrition environment of the University of Free State and on dietary practises of students on food aid.


Speaking at the National Colloquium on Access to Food for Students in South African Tertiary Institutions during a session chaired by Professor Julian May - about research into student food insecurity in South Africa - Dr Meko said a streamlined methodology in research would help researchers to “speak from the same mind and thought space.”

Turning to the interventions aimed at alleviating hunger and food insecurity, Dr Meko said such measures need to take into consideration the nutritional needs of students. “Whatever the interventions are, they have to ensure that the food provided meets the recommended standards in terms of variety and quality.”

Remoinelwe Mogatosi, a Masters student based at the University of the Western Cape, said during the same session that, in determining the research focus, “we should try to come up with new ways of thinking about food security and insecurity.

“Our current measures tell us that South Africa is food secure, but when we look at households, about 45 percent of them are food insecure.” Mogatosi said South Africa was suffering from a misalignment of the intentions of policy.

“Hunger is just one of the small things in the broader structural issues that are hampering the graduate rate and retention rate at universities. We need to highlight the issue of food security and to get more people, not just government, but the private sector as well, involved in alleviating food insecurity”, she said.

Speaking during the same session, UWC's Professor Rina Swart said some of the confusions around the discrepancies of food insecurity were as a result of different definitions of food security. Swart is also Principal Investigator of the Shelves, Baskets and Plates Programme at the Centre of Excellence in Food Security.

She said a 2017 survey showed that some students (about three percent surveyed) had been forced to make use of sex to pay for food. On the positive side, it was refreshing to see how widespread the willingness was to share food aid with fellow students at UWC.

One thing is certain, Professor Swart said, “the students are more hungry when NSFAS doesn't work.”

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New approaches needed to beat food insecurity among students

The problem of food insecurity in South African universities is a reality – but is not well documented. There is a big need for research on the issue to be published and made available – and for streamlining in terms of methodology.

This was the view put forward by the University of Free State's Dr Lucia Meko.

Speaking at the National Colloquium on Access to Food for Students in South African Tertiary Institutions during a session chaired by Professor Julian May - about research into student food insecurity in South Africa - Dr Meko said a streamlined methodology in research would help researchers to “speak from the same mind and thought space.”

“Food insecurity affects different students based on their demographics. We found more African students and more males were food insecure and were depending on student aid, loans and bursaries. Previous research conducted on the same campus in 2013 found that 56 percent of the students surveyed were food insecure.”

Dr Meko was involved in research in 2015 on the nutrition environment of the University of Free State and on dietary practises of students on food aid. “My research looked at the availability of food to students on food aid at the university. We found the environment was not conducive to healthy food choices.

Turning to the interventions aimed at alleviating hunger and food insecurity, Dr Meko said such measures need to take into consideration the nutritional needs of students.

“Whatever the interventions are, they have to ensure that the food provided meets the recommended standards in terms of variety and quality.”

Remoinelwe Mogatosi, a Masters student based at the University of the Western Cape, said during the same session that, in determining the research focus, “we should try to come up with new ways of thinking about food security and insecurity.

“Our current measures tell us that South Africa is food secure, but when we look at households, about 45 percent of them are food insecure. We have a disaggregated way of studying food security. We should realise that there are pockets in society which are more food insecure, and this has to do with access and inequality”

Mogatosi was involved in two studies at UWC that explored food insecurity among students on the UWC campus. The first study looked at senior students on residences and the second focused on food insecurity among first-year students.

“Study 1 showed a high prevalence of food insecurity. Most of the students on NSFAS reported that despite having financial aid, this aid often came late in the year. This left students vulnerable to food insecurity at the beginning of the year and once more in the beginning of the second semester. The qualitative phase of the interview also showed that students had a subjective interpretation of what it meant to be food insecure. Despite most of the students being food insecure, participants insisted that they were not. Students often referred to other people in poverty as a point of reference. Further inquiry revealed that students who went the most number of days without food were less likely to accept aid in the form of food vouchers.

“Study 2 focused on seeing the change in food security of a sample of students compared to their last year at home and their first three months on university residence. About 70% of students were food insecure in their first three months at university. This was a reduction from marginal food security of the group when they were at home.

First year students relied on several coping strategies, including borrowing money from friends. During focus group discussions, females reported forming groups to contribute towards monthly groceries. This method allowed relief every third month for each of the girls. Males reported low cooking skills and hardly cooked together. The first-year university residence did not have designated cooking areas for students to cook. This meant that students had to buy food storage solutions and stoves. For females, this was relatively easier as two or more women shared one fridge while males did not adopt this practice. When it came to issues of stigma, males reported that they would not go for food aid while females reported having no issue with getting food aid.”

Mogatosi said South Africa was suffering from a misalignment of the intentions of policy.

“Even the things put in place to help those students are actually failing them, for example NSFAS. It ends up being a form of structural violence. We are making universities into harmscapes as we are bringing poor students into tertiary institutions that are simply not ready for them and systematically the students do not make it through,” she said.

“Hunger is just one of the small things in the broader structural issues that are hampering the graduate rate and retention rate at universities. We need to highlight the issue of food security and to get more people, not just government, but the private sector as well, involved in alleviating food insecurity”.

Speaking during the same session, UWC's Professor Rina Swart said some of the confusions around the discrepancies of food insecurity were as a result of different definitions of food security. Swart is also Principal Investigator of the Shelves, Baskets and Plates Programme at the Centre of Excellence in Food Security.

She said a 2017 survey showed that some students (about three percent surveyed) had been forced to make use of sex to pay for food. On the positive side, it was refreshing to see how widespread the willingness was to share food aid with fellow students at UWC.

“There is a great sensitivity about hunger … some suggested that most students are in the same boat and should not feel stigmatised by the problem.”

One thing is certain, Professor Swart said, “the students are more hungry when NSFAS doesn't work.”



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