Food matters: Food insecurity and student hunger

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Words || Brigit Busicchia

Most people agree that access to an education provides a springboard to a rewarding and prosperous professional life. But the getting-there often resembles a testing ground for students in developing skills of endurance and resilience, particularly in times of difficult financial circumstances. It is not uncommon for student poverty to be regarded as a rite of passage, a character-building experience made of two-minute noodles, expensive textbooks, and lots of partying. However, it is dangerous to romanticise student poverty, especially when we discover that an increasing proportion of university students go without necessities because they cannot afford them.

What if one of the immediate consequences of student poverty was that some students went without food from time to time? Some would argue that students’ spending priorities may be at the core of the problem, and if students were more ‘responsible’, they would not experience problems with accessing safe and nutritious food. Indeed, spending priorities can influence purchasing patterns. Yet, it should not detract our attention from the significance of financial hardship over decisions concerning living arrangements and food practices. The cost of food is considerable for people with limited economic access and often, students allocate their disposable income to other needs.

The few studies that have been conducted recently on the prevalence of food insecurity among university students in Australia send alarming signals. Research at Griffith University in 2011 found that more than 25 per cent of its university student population was experiencing food insecurity and hunger. Not only did the study confirm the strong association between personal finances, time management and food habits, it also highlighted how students living with their parents were significantly less likely to be food insecure.

A similar research project was conducted in 2014 at the University of Wollongong. The findings were even more alarming and revealed that about 37% of its student population experienced severe levels of food insecurity. Most vulnerable of all were international students, students who were renting, and those without a car. Undoubtedly, food access is not only a question of economic access, but it is also a question of physical access.
Ever heard of ‘food deserts’, places where the only food available is either at the local service station or at local convenience store?

Of course, employment can ease problems of food insecurity, but the question remains: how many hours should students work to support and feed themselves while studying? If paid employment is not sufficient to cover food, students tend to resort to a suite of coping strategies like going back to the parental home for dinner, borrowing money, attending events where free food is made available, working for the hospitality industry, or even seeking support from food banks or welfare agencies. And for the more adventurous, there’s always dumpster diving.

There are a few points of interest here. To begin with, food insecurity is experienced to much higher degrees among university students than it is among the general Australian population. In fact, the Australian government reports a prevalence of food insecurity among the Australian population in the vicinity of 5% (Australian Institute of Family Studies). With levels hovering over the 25% mark for university student populations, it is fair to conclude that being young, paying rent or board away from home, and living in low-income households will set you up as a likely candidate as someone who is not enjoying easy access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

This leads us to the second point. Food insecurity and inadequate food intake reduces physical and mental health and diminishes an individual’s ability to learn, work and participate socially. Therefore, it would suggest that the very argument that tertiary education is the springboard for socio-economic development might be undermined by the insecure conditions under which tertiary education is to be obtained. Misaligned student support policies at both governmental and university levels further reinforce the vulnerability of university students at risk of poverty, financial stress and food insecurity.

How do the 40,000 students enrolled at Macquarie University fare in the face of financial stress and food poverty is anyone’s guess. But if previous research projects can be of any indication, some 10,000 students could be suffering from severe forms of food insecurity, including hunger.

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