Financial and food crisis of university students

by Shellique Carby-Bird Friday August 20th 2021

Financial and food crisis of university students -student-finances-01

Many university students are going without food because of food insecurity and a lack of finances.

Megan C. Whatnall, Melinda J. Hutchesson, and Amanda J. Patterson from the University of Newcastle (here called the Newcastle trio) published an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on 17 January 2020 called “Predictors of Food Insecurity among Australian University Students: A Cross-Sectional Study”.

What is food insecurity?

The Newcastle trio describes food security as where “all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity, i.e. the absence of this, is a widespread issue among university students internationally. A recent systematic review of 18 studies among university students from five countries found an average rate of food insecurity of 42%, with the majority of these studies in western countries, including nine in the USA and three in Australia.”

Craig Jeffrey, Gyorgy Scrinis, and Jane Dyson from The University of Melbourne (here called the Melbourne trio) published an article on ‘’ on 15 March 2021 called “‘God, I miss fruit!’ 40% of students at Australian universities may be going without food”.

The Melbourne trio said the reasons for food insecurity include the high amount of international students, lack of cheap, subsidised food on many university campuses, and not enough people know about the problem. The trio is worried that the problem seems to be so ignored at their university.

Fair Food Challenge (a charity organisation) at The University of Melbourne says, “One of the big barriers to action on student food insecurity is a lack of data.”

The Newcastle trio says the reason the university students’ food insecurity rate is higher than the general population could be the fact that university students have additional study-related expenses. Also, they do not have the time to work because of their studies. Those who do work while studying get lower-paid jobs due to lower skills, and incomplete credentials.

Lack of choice

The Melbourne trio says recent studies suggest the percentage of students sometimes going without food could be over 40%. The Newcastle trio’s research of the University of Newcastle revealed that 48% of student participants were food insecure.

Some students at The University of Melbourne said they had to skip meals (mostly breakfasts and home-cooked meals). The Melbourne trio said, “More commonly, students reported a lack of money, time, and information meant having to compromise the diversity and nutritional quality of their diets. When asked about food insecurity, one student exclaimed: ‘God, I miss fruit!’ Another said: ‘You can’t live on instant noodles for three years’.”

‘Diversity’ here means variety. One consequence of cutting down on the amount and variety of food the students ate was that some students lost weight without choosing to in their first year at The University of Melbourne. But there are more consequences.

Effects and consequences

Food insecurity has many consequences. Some are physical and/or mental poor health, poor academic performance, and difficulty forming and keeping friendships on campus.

The shame associated with food insecurity is a common problem. For example, when most students want to chat, they arrange to meet at a place where they can buy a drink and/or a snack. Poor students cannot do this, and many are too embarrassed to say so.

Students who do not eat enough food and nutrients are at high risk of either failing or dropping out of their courses. They also are more prone to depression.

Some students manage to overcome their lack of food occasionally. Poor students at The University of Melbourne learn how to make use of the opportunities around them. For example, they find events on campus where free food is given, like barbecues providing free sausages.

The international students in the Melbourne research were the worst affected by the problem. Many domestic Australian students at The University of Melbourne felt sympathy for poor international students and felt obligated to help them. Most domestic students affected were students who lived in rented accommodation instead of with their parents, and undergraduates as opposed to graduates. Those who know about food insecurity among university students feel that not enough is being done about it.

Looking forward

The Melbourne trio says students would like to get involved in existing strategies to combat food insecurity in at least four ways:

  • think creatively about how universities might draw on the excellent work done in the mental health area as a way of destigmatising food insecurity

  • reflect on whether university policy of inviting large numbers of private providers to occupy food spaces on campuses might be balanced with initiatives to provide nutritious subsidised food, perhaps revisiting the traditional idea of the university canteen

  • universities could do more to reduce food waste

  • since many universities have agriculture departments and diverse landholdings, they might try to link students’ consumption with ethically produced, local and nutritious food on university farms.

The Newcastle trio says “Universities aiming to address food insecurity should target programs or strategies to those students not living with their parents, while preventative strategies should be targeted to students during their transition to living away from parents for the first time (e.g. at the commencement of university study).” Obviously, strategies should particularly target students from families with lower incomes.

Regarding long-term solutions, the Newcastle trio says, “There is a need for strategies that can provide longstanding benefit and which recognise that to be food secure is a fundamental human right. For example, strategies such as interventions to improve students’ food literacy and ability to manage their finances stand to provide lifelong knowledge and skills, and therefore long-term benefit. At the broader level, there is a need for strategies that overall work towards creating a health-promoting university environment, including strategies that target individuals, e.g. financial advisory services, and health promotion initiatives to improve food literacy, and strategies that target the environment, e.g. ensuring access to food on-campus that is healthy and affordable. Further, there is a need for strategies which ensure adequate support to students for factors such as housing and healthcare, which potentially extend beyond the responsibility of universities to others such as government.”

Most students who are affected by food insecurity do not drop out of their course, which shows how desperate and determined they are to get a good education and make a better life for themselves. Students endure a lot of stress from their academic demands and other responsibilities. Adding food insecurity to the high-stress levels of university students should be avoided.

Financial and food crisis of university students -food-crisis