Universities must do more to address student food insecurity

Working with established community networks can boost the quality and choice available in food banks, say Hilda Mulrooney and four co-authors

May 30, 2024
A student volunteer works at a food bank
Source: iStock

Despite the fact that inflation is finally falling, the cost-of-living crisis still looms large over the UK’s general election campaign.

Food insecurity has been on the rise. Food bank providers report increasing numbers of people needing access to emergency food parcels, mainly due to poor finances.

And while food bank use is shocking, it is not the full picture. Many people who are struggling are ineligible for referral to food banks (perhaps because their poverty is long term; food banks are only supposed to be temporary stopgaps during crises) or use them only as a last resort.

University students are not usually perceived as being at risk of food insecurity. The public at large probably think of them as carefree, even careless. But surveys show that students are currently actually at high risk. Even though university fees have been frozen, maintenance loans have not kept pace with inflation. Accordingly, a survey of almost 3,500 students carried out in 2022 found that about one in three students had less than £50 a month after rent and bills were paid and one in 10 had used a food bank.

This shortage of maintenance funding can force students to rely on family and friends for support or to take on paid work. This can affect their attainment: students working alongside their studies have less time to spend on campus, therefore less opportunity to develop the relationships with peers and academic staff that are integral to learning. Worrying about how to make ends meet reduces the mental capacity to study and achieve. It might also have a negative effect on physical health and well-being.

Some students are worse affected than others. Food insecurity is higher in low-income groups, those with families (especially young children), those of black or Asian ethnicity and those with disabilities. Many students fall into one or more of these categories.

International students are particularly disadvantaged. Not only do they pay higher fees, but they are ineligible for much of the support that universities can offer, such as government-funded hardship funds, and they are limited to 20 hours per week of paid work in term time. Struggling financially only heaps pressure on a group already dealing with a different culture and, often, a second language, in an environment that is not always welcoming.

Also of concern is the “squeezed middle”, a group ineligible for emergency support but not necessarily able to get the help they need from family and friends either. Nor are they the only ones at risk of falling through the cracks. Although universities bring significant benefit to their local areas, student support is not always recognised as a concern by local authorities, which are themselves beset with financial problems. And students who commute often live in one borough but study in another, so might be viewed as transient rather than permanent community members, ineligible for support.

Many UK universities have tried to address student food insecurity by, for example, establishing their own food banks. While it is excellent that the need to help is recognised, how support is offered also matters. Food banks have been criticised both for the quality of their food and the lack of choice offered to clients, reducing their agency and potentially creating stigma. We advocate leveraging relationships with community networks to overcome some of these problems.

For example, in the London borough of Kingston upon Thames, we have established the KingsGate Student Pantry, built out of existing relationships between local community groups and university staff, who have worked together for several years. Using a social supermarket model, clients of the pantry do not have to prove financial need and international students are welcome. For a £5 weekly fee, clients receive high-quality food, including fresh produce, as well as household and personal hygiene items with a total estimated worth of £20-£35.

This small weekly payment helps to sustain the model, but also enables pantry clients to retain their dignity. Food is sourced using existing links with suppliers established to reduce food waste, while cooking demonstrations teach students about healthy eating on a budget. Physically the pantry is housed in a church and run by a local charity, using university staff and student volunteers as well as church volunteers. This has enabled us to establish a thriving social space, mixing across different demographics who would not usually meet and building a sense of community.

Students from families who have used food banks in the last year are 21 per cent less likely to apply to university, while students who can concentrate on their studies, without worrying about how to feed themselves, are more likely to complete their studies to the best of their abilities. This benefits society as a whole.

It is to be hoped that whichever party forms the next government will get to grips, one way or another, with the dearth of student maintenance support. In the meantime, helping students with cost-of-living pressures is our collective responsibility. So let’s do it as well as we possibly can.

Hilda Mulrooney is reader in nutrition and health at London Metropolitan University. Sarah Clay is CEO of Voices of Hope. Sarah Sumpter is a nutrition undergraduate and Sianne Schwikkard is a senior lecturer in the faculty of health, science, social care and education at Kingston University. Paul Harper is an elder at KingsGate Church, Kingston upon Thames.

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Reader's comments (1)

Part of the reason so many universities are on the financial brink is because they are expected to be the surrogate government for students who are ignored by Westminster. Yes, students need help and university leaders should be responsive to the challenges faced by their community, but we need to challenge this mission creep towards a university being the provider of every public service.