There may be serious sector problems when it comes to students and food

Jim Dickinson presents polling results suggesting that students are struggling with the cost of food - and many may have eating disorders too

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, I’ve been worried that while there was pretty much society-wide financial support for unusually high energy costs, support on food costs is only really being targeted at those on universal credit – excluding most students.

I won’t repeat here the long-term concerns that surround maintenance support, the inadequacy of the different top ups being applied by governments, or the way in which food inflation in particular remains especially high as other aspects of the basket fall (in the rate of increase, but not necessarily in price).

In Cybil’s annual Mental Health Study for 2023, cost of living showed up as a cause of declining mental health for 3 in 4 (73 per cent) students with mental health difficulties. It also found that 3 in 5 (62 per cent) of students worry about money daily or weekly.

We’ve also been concerned – ever since this stand-alone bit of polling from the Office for National Statistics appeared in the autumn of 2021 – that the sector may be missing a persistent and significant food health issue that could be impacting other areas of the student experience.

As such, as part of our pulse polling partnership with GTI/Cibyl (which our subscriber SUs can take part in for free), we’ve been interrogating students and food from a couple of angles – affordability, and eating disorders.

In that Cybil mental health work, there were all sorts of comments from students relating to food. Some related to workload:

There is a high demand for the work needed to be produced and therefore it is not possible to maintain a healthy work-life balance, nor get enough sleep and food.

Others were very much focussed on rising costs:

Inflation and generally rising prices at the moment make it hard to eat healthy food and/or do activities
Eating healthy has been a challenge due to the high prices of healthy food items.
Due to limitations on budget, I have to hold back from buying a lot of stuff including groceries, warm clothing etc.

And in a number of cases, the role that foods plays in students’ mental health stood out:

Eating healthily is difficult as I sometimes depend on food as a comfort.

So to try to understand more about what’s going on, we’ve undertaken two waves of polling – one earlier in the calendar year, and one over the past few weeks – and while our pilot universities/SUs are overrepresented in the sample for now in way that makes it difficult to draw reliable national conclusions, the findings are alarming enough to discuss – especially when we dive into some of the cross-breaks.

Food insecurity

This time last year, the Office for National Statistics ran a study looking at the characteristics of adults experiencing both energy and food insecurity in Great Britain. It asked the following three questions, and found that 20 per cent of adults were classed as having experienced some form of food insecurity:

  • In the past two weeks, have you or your household run out of food and could not afford to buy more?
  • In the past two weeks, how worried or unworried have you been that your food would run out before you had got money to buy more?
  • To what extent do you agree or disagree you or your household can afford to eat a balanced diet?

In our sample of just over 1,400 students, 34 per cent had experienced a form of food insecurity in the previous two weeks – and there were interesting differences across characteristics.

For example, when we asked students how worried they had been in the previous two weeks that their food would run out before they had got money to buy more, the figures were as follows:

Very or Somewhat32%31%26%40%
Not very or Not at all52%53%61%46%
Don’t know or PNTS15%16%14%14%

These findings seem to reinforce anecdotal evidence from students’ unions that international students are among the heaviest users of food banks.

Meanwhile, when we asked UK-domiciled students how worried they had been that their food would run out before they had got money to buy more, we got these results:

 OverallFirst in familyBursaryState educated
Very or somewhat31%33%39%32%
Not very or not at all53%52%47%53%
Don’t know or PNTS16%14%14%16%

These findings suggest that the totality of student financial support – usually designed to put those on low-income on a level-playing field with their peers – is not sufficiently covering their essential costs.

When we turn to what we might regard as a “food emergency” – where in the previous two weeks respondents ran out of food and could not afford to buy more – UK-domiciled postgraduates are particularly feeling the pinch.

As PGTs dominated PGs in our sample, these findings are likely to reflect the relative lack of student financial support on offer for PG students, where tuition fee increases are increasingly devouring available loans from each nation.

On this issue of food emergency, we also see important differences for UK-domiciled students by characteristic – suggesting that as well as evaluating previous initiatives, those designing access or student support initiatives should take care to take into account the contemporary external environment on costs and support:

 Average UndergradPostgrad 
Don't know or PNTS4%5%4%

There is, perhaps inevitably, a link between student academic experience and some of these findings. We must be careful not to assume causation – but for example if we compare those experiencing a “food emergency” with those that have not, we see interesting differences for a range of National Student Survey questions, including:

How good are staff at explaining things?

 No food emergencyExperienced food emergency  

How fair has the marking and assessment been on your course?

 No food emergencyExperienced food emergency  

Even when considering a student’s self-perception that they or their household can generally afford to eat a healthy, balanced diet, a significant percentage of students disagree that that is possible – in our sample around a quarter disagreed, with those figures higher for those first in family, state educated and in receipt of means-tested bursaries.

These findings raise questions both about the value of maintenance support, “hardship” funds that students may not feel should be accessed unless in an emergency, and the availability of affordable food options on campus – many of which offerings, in stark contrast to many European countries, have been focussed on reducing costs or the maximisation of profit for subcontractors in recent years.

There’s also a relationship with students’ sense of belonging and community. Again, we must be careful not to make assumptions causation here – but when asking the old NSS question on feeling part of a community of staff and students, the relationship is clear:

 Positive about communityNegative about community  
Has experienced food emergency14%23%
Has not experienced food emergency82%57%
Don’t know or PNTS4%14%

Campus life

These findings are concerning, not least because the data reflects previous findings on the links between belonging, mental health and engagement in campus life. For example when we compare feeling part of a community with engagement in a range of student opportunities, there is always a positive association:

 All sampleSportsSocietiesRep’nMediaLiberation
Positive re community78%82%84%88%94%83%
Negative re community22%18%16%12%6%17%
 VolunteeringNight eventsDay eventsEnterpriseLeaderNone
Positive re community83%86%90%95%82%67%
Negative re community17%14%10%5%18%33%

When asking students what stopped them from taking part, there were a range of responses that reflected previous polling findings on confidence, disability and academic workload. However, intersecting issues of distance from campus, time available and wider pressures all featured more heavily in these responses:

  • “I work a lot of hours part-time due to financial reasons…I often feel that events are geared towards students who have a lot of free time.”
  • “Also, everything costs money nowadays which you can imagine is difficult as a student.”
  • “Money! And a lack of friends has meant that certain events I just wouldn’t go to.”

Taken together the findings suggest that providers and their SUs in England in particular should take seriously Risk 7 in OfS’ Equality of Opportunity Risk register, which suggests that students who do not receive sufficient personal support on course, including (but not limited to) access to extracurricular activities may be more likely to report lower wellbeing and/or sense of belonging, experience poor mental health, achieve lower-than-expected on-course attainment and lower continuation rates.

Problems with food

As well as the focus on food insecurity, we were keen to follow up on and interrogate an ONS poll of first-year students carried out in 2021 that found 23 percent of students suggested possible issues with food or body image, and 27 percent suggested that they may have an eating disorder – areas of student wellbeing that have received much less attention than others in the past.

The so-called SCOFF questionnaire is a five-item measure to assess the possible presence of an eating disorder. Respondents are asked the following questions, with two response options – Yes and No (as well as Prefer not to say and Don’t know):

  • Do you make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
  • Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?
  • Have you recently lost more than one stone (6.4kg) in a 3 month period?
  • Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?
  • Would you say that food dominates your life?

Each “Yes” response to the five questions is summed for the total score, and a person is placed into one of three categories based on their SCOFF score:

  • no sign of possible issue – eating disorder (SCOFF) score of 0
  • possible issues with food or body image – eating disorder (SCOFF) score of 1
  • possible eating disorder – eating disorder (SCOFF) score of 2 to 5

In the NHS’ Mental Health of Children and Young People in England study last year, more than six in ten 17- to 23-year-olds had “possible problems with eating”, with the problem worse in the upper half of that age bracket.

In our sample, the percentages were as follows:

  • no sign of possible issue – 51% (ONS 50%)
  • possible issues with food or body image – 26% (ONS 23%)
  • possible eating disorder – 23% (ONS 27%)

Perhaps surprisingly given wider evidence sets, there were not significant gender differences on the measures – but there was a good degree of confirmation that the 2021 ONS first-year figures had identified something important:

Do you make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?
Have you recently lost more than one stone (6.4kg) in a 3 month period?
Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?
Would you say that food dominates your life?

When compared to, say, sexual health or wider issues of mental health and wellbeing amongst students, issues relating to food have had almost no attention from the higher education policy community – and there is a danger that they are dismissed as something “for the NHS to tackle” when that seems unlikely in the current context.

So these polling findings suggest that at the very least, further research should be commissioned to understand in more detail the distribution and extent of food problems amongst students.

And again, while should be careful not to assume any causation, at the headline level there’s a reasonable assumption that successful interventions in this area would have a positive impact on students’ wellbeing and associated aspects of student experience and outcomes.

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