Covid spotlights hunger struggles for Australia’s overseas students

Students collaborate to combat food shortages, as Covid widens the gap between Australia’s haves and have-nots

December 29, 2021
nternational students carry groceries from a foodbank in Melbourne to illustrate Covid spotlights hunger struggles for Australia’s overseas students
Source: Getty

Covid-19 has elicited creative solutions to food poverty on Australian campuses, as students – particularly from overseas – find inventive ways to beat hunger.

The pandemic has encouraged improvisations on the tactics that students have long employed to combat malnutrition, such as arranging tutorials to coincide with free barbecues and keeping abreast of regular discounts at supermarkets and hamburger outlets.

Foreign students are now reserving refrigerator racks in shared kitchens to deposit leftover food for friends in need. Other stratagems include “clubbing together” to cover membership costs at bulk food retailers such as Costco warehouse stores.

“You could buy a 100-kilo bag of rice and share it out,” said Craig Jeffrey, professor of human geography at the University of Melbourne. “Or just put stuff out on social media – I’ve got a kilo of rice that I don’t need; that sort of thing.”

He said the pandemic had fostered a unified front, as media coverage put the spotlight on the privations endured disproportionately by international students. “Because the issue became more public, and people were talking about it, they became more aware of other people suffering the same problem. So there were more coordinated efforts.”

Foreign students have long struggled to meet the expensive costs of living in Australia. Covid amplified the hardship by forcing many out of the hospitality and retail jobs they needed to support themselves, as restaurants, cafes and shops were shuttered.

With no family homes to retreat to, and barred from receiving the JobKeeper wage subsidies and JobSeeker unemployment benefits that sustained their domestic counterparts, some international students found themselves in dire straits.

But the tradition of student hunger stretches long before coronavirus. Studies in 2014 in Queensland and Victoria found that food insecurity afflicted one-quarter to almost one-half of students. But with the scant research into the issue mainly limited to occasional surveys, Professor Jeffrey and Melbourne colleagues devised a qualitative study that was conceived before Covid’s emergence but undertaken under pandemic conditions.

The team included human geographer Jane Dyson and Gyorgy Scrinis, an associate professor of food politics, along with four student co-researchers. Interviews with 90 students at six Victorian universities found that daily hunger pangs were a common experience that left participants sluggish and detached, affecting their mental and physical health.

The research also highlighted the gulf between students of different means. “The student body in lots of these universities is very unequal,” Professor Jeffrey said. “You’ve got some students going out for A$30 (£16) lunches and others for whom that A$30 is almost what they’ve got for the week.”

One participant confessed to taking Tupperware containers into expensive restaurants and claiming to be on a “special diet”, in order to socialise without facing exorbitant bills.

Professor Jeffrey said the gap between international and domestic students had also widened during lockdowns. The hardships eased for some locals as welfare benefits increased, but intensified for many foreigners.

But the privations also created “common cause”, as locals grew increasingly aware of their foreign peers’ adversities. “One of the things we really noticed was domestic students being worried about international students,” he said. “The care of students one for another was very apparent.”

The group has sought funding to pursue the research in other states.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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