We need to talk about food insecurity

Jim Dickinson reviews the latest inflation figures and finds research on students and hunger hard to come by

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The latest inflation figures are in – and on the basis that their basket differs somewhat from the average consumer, it’s not good news for students.

The cost of food and non-alcoholic beverage prices rose by 14.6 per cent in the 12 months to September 2022, up from 13.1 per cent in August. The annual rate of inflation for this category has been rising for the last 14 consecutive months – with the current rate the highest since April 1980.

It’s worse below the surface. Universities can publish those cooking tips webpages until they are hungry in the face, but the largest upward effects in the increase came from the staples often found on the recipe cards – bread and cereals, meat products, and milk, cheese and eggs.

It’s one of the reasons why the principal support for households via energy bills support is so hopelessly inadequate – even if you ignore its patchy coverage for students, the approach doesn’t address the rocketing cost of not being hungry.

What a disgrace it is, then, that in a few short months, candidates in students’ union elections won’t be campaigning merely to establish food banks – but to improve the range, accessibility, subsidy and promotion of their semi-permanent food banks.

Shame and support

I like to think that universities these days understand how common it is for students to feel shame when they’re experiencing the opposite of a social norm or feel as if they’re seen as “othered”, even if doing something about it is a different story.

But I’m not convinced we fully understand as a sector the extent of the problem with students and food, and I don’t know that most people understand the deep and visceral shame associated with being hungry.

In a recent study nearly one in two (42 per cent) of students reported some degree of food insecurity, with some at higher risk – first-year students (46 per cent), international students (61 per cent) and students who identify as non-binary (69 per cent). The problem? It was an Australian study.

Prior to the pandemic, 30 percent of all university students experienced food insecurity at some point during their time in higher education, and according to a survey from 2020, between 29 and 38 percent of students reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. In the USA.

As you might expect, the report also highlighted significant racial and ethnic disparities – 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent Black, and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness, compared to 54 percent of White students. But in the UK, studies that might tell us about the extent of food insecurity, and its distribution amongst student characteristics barely exist.

In this paper from the CEDAR (Communicating Diet and Activity Research) at Cambridge, researchers found that almost one in four UK adults lived in food insecurity at some point in 2017. Families with children were more likely to be living in food insecurity, as were younger adults and students. But there’s no more detail.

In one of the few UK studies that’s around that was carried out during the pandemic in 2020, 35 percent of students surveyed reported low or very low levels of food security, and 41 percent were worried that their food would run out. They also found high levels of poor mental health and well-being – mental health was associated with level of food security.

Students who were living on their own or with other students were more likely to experience low or very low levels of food insecurity compared to those students living with family members. It called on the sector to undertake a national survey to investigate food security and mental health and wellbeing and the correlation to academic non-continuation, transfer and attainment. It’s not clear that that call has been heeded.

Succeeding on an empty stomach?

I had a testy conversation with someone senior in a university last week which opened with the idea that while food might be a concern, it’s not really a concern for higher education. I understand the instinct – but a 2021 study from the Journal of American College Health investigated how food insecurity impacted students, and responses included feeling sick from hunger while trying to take exams, an inability to focus or walk to class, and anxiety about both where their next meal was coming from and spending too much money on food. It’s an education issue.

In this study of almost 4,000 students across in 12 US states, 48 per cent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry. 55 percent reported that these problems caused them to not buy a required textbook, 53 per cent reported missing classes, and in this US study food insecurity increased the odds of being among the lower 10 percent Grade Point Average, and reduced the odds of being among the upper 10 percent. It’s an access and participation issue.

We also know that food insecurity impacts the chance of obtaining a degree, have lower odds of graduating, and for first in family students, less than half who experienced food insecurity finished their education. And so it’s as good bet as any that investing in things like food pantries, free breakfasts for students or reducing the prices of catering on campus will have beneficial impacts on continuation and completion.

Nom nom nom

The other day, I posted onto Twitter a picture of something I was struck by on our study tour to the Baltics back in 2020 – that in Finland, a student meal on campus costs €2.70, a price regulated by the government.

There’s more to the story than meets the eye – that figure is heavily subsidised by the government – but it’s a reminder that in some countries, there’s a commitment not just to the quality of food or the sustainability of food, but student access to it from a financial perspective too – because a decent lunch impacts health and academic wellbeing.

I was fascinated by the replies – detailing endless tales of canteens closing and rip-off meal “deals” that are put to shame by the local Greggs or Tesco. The privatised catering contracts that dominate UK higher education were signed in a different era, and deserve a fresh look through the optic of access.

In a sector that cured Covid, is it really so hard for universities to collectively commit to free breakfasts for those that need them, and a £2 hot meal deal in pursuit of educational outcomes? And why is it that we regard good and healthy food as something to profit from to fund other things, rather than something to heavily subsidise to support educational outcomes?

No, guys

But as well as food banks, catering costs and recipe cards – and doing proper research on the extent and distribution of food insecurity – we also need to work on the shame thing.

The “norms” promoted via a Pret or a FiveGuys on campus make campuses look more like theme parks for the rich than places where anyone can afford to study healthily.

And in the US, one study examined the relationship between food insecurity and food pantry use, in which the four main barriers to using the on-campus food pantry were identified as information on pantry use policies, inconvenient hours, and social stigma and self-identity. Let’s hope that UK equivalents of innovative campaigns like this spring up soon.

Just like mental health and harassment and sexual misconduct, we may first need to get over the institutional and corporate shame of admitting that yes, it happens here. But students can’t wait for the dance of resisting prevalence research and nor can they afford twelve years of pressure like they have over sexual misconduct – universities need to shift the norm to make it OK to talk about hunger, and getting help with it. It will be worth the effort if it has these sorts of impacts:

My academic performance has improved, socially I feel more connected to campus, and my mental health is much better on the days when I am able to eat on campus. I believe my physical health has improved overall since I’m able to get more balanced meals at least twice a week.”

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