Hungry Students: A Public Health Crisis

Only 15% of our students make it all the way to graduation day. Part of the reason is that most of them are just too hungry to learn.

When Samantha gets up at dawn to start the journey from her home in the shadow of the Lesotho mountains she is hungry. By the time she sits down to her first lecture the emptiness inside her is growling for attention. In the afternoon when a Professor rambles on about environmental management, her mind wanders to ways of avoiding the student centre where everyone’s eating.

She dreads the 60 km journey back home every day when the Thaba Nchu (Black Mountain) casts a long shadow across the land. The food smells in the minibus taxi makes her jaw ache with longing for the luxuries in the plastic packets of fellow travellers. Tomorrow the routine will be just the same.

When Samantha was accepted at the University of the Free State a couple of years ago, her single mother was over the moon. She is one of a handful of young people from Thaba Nchu who managed to make it to an institution of higher education. She used to have a bursary but it’s been stopped.

“Most of my high school classmates are at home. Some are job hunting, others are raising their children. My mother, who makes a living from baking cookies, is so proud of me. She can’t wait for the day when I will graduate and we’ll have enough to eat. Life at home changed drastically when my father died. I was only four years old. He was the sole breadwinner. His death left an emotional void and a gaping financial hole. Things have never been the same since,” says Samantha.

Almost 60% Are Hungry

A UFS study shows that a staggering 59,35% of students “experience very low food security with hunger”. =

In South Africa less that 1 % of the population holds a degree. The Department of Higher Education has produced statistics that indicate only 15% of our students graduate. Samantha’s chances of finishing her studies are as slim as her attention span, severely affected by hunger. Studies show that poor nutrition has an adverse effect on intellectual ability. But her story would be a bit more bearable if it were unusual. A University of the Free State study shows that a staggering 59,35% of students “experience very low food security with hunger”. This is academic speak for… Most of the students at this university, in a country where the economy is dominated by vast mineral wealth, are hungry every day.

And the study indicates that those paying for their tuition with loans or bursaries – like Samantha – were most likely to be hungry. The problem is most prevalent, say the researchers, among coloured and black students. In this research conducted electronically only a quarter of the students reported having enough food to eat. Ten percent never have enough money for food. A significant percentage of students at the UFS have to borrow or steal money for food. The study states:

“More than half of respondents reported that they have asked someone else for food, while a tenth reported that they have had to sell some of their possessions to procure food money, and a small percentage even admitted to having stolen food. Those who have had to resort to selling possessions or stealing food were also the most likely to have very low food security (food insecurity with hunger).”

Embarrassed To Be Hungry

The hungry UFS students come mainly from poor, rural backgrounds. They struggle to support themselves while studying. But according to the researchers, students were reluctant to discuss the problem openly because they were embarrassed and feared being stigmatised.

“I remember feeling ashamed of my background especially when a friend offered to buy me lunch. I felt like a burden. I didn’t have anything to offer back. But that experience taught me there is more to friendship than monetary value. I feared that I would be exposed on campus for being in need of financial assistance when I applied for the NSH aid. But I applied anyway because I was desperate,” says Samantha referring to the University’s No Student Hungry campaign.

Professor Violet L van den Berg of the university’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dr Jacques Raubenheimer of the Department of Biostatistics conducted a study entitled Food insecurity among university students in a developing country. Both departments fall under the Faculty of Health Sciences.

“There is no record to date of such a problem at the university,” said Professor van den Berg. “It is the first time that it has been formally studied,” she said.

The survey found that black and coloured students were more likely to be acutely hungry than white students or those of Asian descent. The Free State is one of the poorest provinces with 33 percent of the population facing problems of “food insecurity”.

The study attracted 1,416 (this is 4,5% of the total student population) respondents who completed a confidential questionnaire. The academics summarise the results as follows:
• With a “single item” method of measuring, the prevalence of food insecurity was 65,1% and most of these are described as “food insecure with hunger”
• About ten percent never have enough money for food with 9.2% saying they sold their belongings to eat and 1.6% admitted to having stolen food
• More than a quarter of the students paid for food with money from loans and bursaries and this group was the most “food insecure”
• More than a fifth of the respondents indicated that they supported somebody else financially; mostly parents, siblings and even their own children or partners/spouses. Just more than a fifth reported having children
• 73.7% reported not always having enough money for food
• 70.5% reported having borrowed food money
• 53.3% reported having asked someone for food
• Only about a quarter of the students said that they always had enough money for food

Problem Could Be Worse

The UFS urban students were over represented in the study, suggesting that the figure for hungry students could be even higher if there were more respondents from the rural campus. The UFS has two urban campuses in Bloemfontein and a third, rural campus at Qwa Qwa in the foothills of the Lesotho Mountains.

“This study indicates that they (our student populations) are particularly vulnerable to severe food insecurity,” said Professor van den Berg.

According to the researchers’ definitions, “food security is not just dependent on economic factors, but also on the physical availability of and access to food and food utilisation”. The researchers suggest more probing into students’ nutrition awareness, access to fridges and fresh food, abilities to prepare their own food etc.

“Food insecurity at tertiary institutions is emerging as a public health issue,” the report stated.

The full UFS study is published elsewhere on this page.

When the UFS became aware of the problem it established a No Student Hungry (NSH) Bursary to ensure that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds with strong academic records were not held back by their empty stomachs.

Led voluntarily by Grace Jansen and Dr Carin Buys, the NSH raises funds innovatively. Earlier this year, two staff members and two community volunteers offered to use their feet to raise funds. The four hikers, Adele van Aswegen, Ronel Warner, Ntokozo Nkabinde and Nico Piedt set off on May 1 and walked 1,000kms from Bloemfontein to Cape Town. They raised awareness about the food insecurity problem affecting the academic performance of students on the UFS campuses. They walked for 33 days and raised an amount of R 533,000.

Students apply for the NSH allowances. They are selected on the basis of financial need, academic performance, active participation in student life programmes and commitment to give something back to the community.

The NSH bursary currently supports 130 students who receive a daily amount of R30 on their student cards that they can use at food outlets on campus. At the end of the year the process is reviewed and students who still qualify are retained on the programme, whilst those whose circumstances have changed or are no longer in need of the food allowances make way for new applications.

The NSH Team meets with students on a regular basis to offer support, motivation and opportunities for personal growth and career development. Students are also expected to become involved in university or community projects as a way of ploughing back into the community.

This response does not come near to dealing with the scale of the problem. It definitely does not address the daily challenges Samantha and others face when they leave homes with bare food cupboards to take their place in lecture halls nationwide.

No Student Hungry Campaign

We scoured the campus to find students who could share their stories with us first hand. But nobody was prepared to be named. The two poster students used by the NHS campaign are Sam-Maree and Moses. The publicity brochures contain their stories:

The programme has given Sam-Maree a boost to her confidence and she is filled with energy allowing her to perform much better. She offers her services to other programmes:
“I volunteer for the HIV/Aids programme as a peer mentor, and I enjoy that almost as much as the meals.”

The programme has brought a sense of relief to both Moses and his guardian.
“I am a second-year B.luris Financial Planning Law student and have been on the
programme almost a year. My guardian is a pensioner living on very limited means,
so the financial strain was great. Knowing that he isn’t as worried about me now,
humbles me. The programme has meant that I can get through the day and gain the
unlimited freedom that comes with education.”

We found a few students with compelling stories but nobody wanted to be identified:
“I am a second-year Geography and Environmental Management student, as well as a single mother so studying and looking after my little boy is very demanding. Being on the No Student Hungry Programme has helped me a lot in terms of getting a balanced meal every day. It is one less worry for me. I dream of completing my studies so that I can be independent and provide my son with the life he deserves,” said Melanie.

If people want to help: SMS “ANSWER” to 38722 and donate R10 to the NSH. Text messages charged at R1.50. You can also contact Vicky Simpson, the NSH Programme Coordinator, on 051 401-7197. Her e-mail is