We need to talk about food: Inside the silent problem of student hunger

Did you know that food insecurity affects 30-40% of students in Australia and is closely linked to issues of equity, diversity, mental health, and sustainability?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the visibility of inequality in Australian universities has gone unnoticed, with the displacement of youth in work and housing becoming an invisible issue as classes maintained online presence.

But student food insecurity remains a largely silent issue, as casual jokes about “the hungry student” suggest. We knew very little about the lived experiences of food insecure students.

The joke of the hungry, struggling student is a common laugh amongst most students who forgot to pack lunch, but the deep routed effects of poverty amongst a large percentage of students is no laughing matter.

A team of researchers at the University of Melbourne spent 2020 and 2021 carrying out in-depth interviews with nearly 100 students across Victoria about their experiences of food insecurity. Their new short animated film highlights many of the themes that emerged from this work.

The researchers, Associate Professor Jane Dyson, PhD Candidate Sara Guest, A/Prof. Gyorgy Scrinis, Melbourne Social Equity Institute Executive Officer Charlene Edwards and Professor Craig Jeffrey have published a 2 minute resource video titled ‘Student Food Insecurity’, which details the reports findings of their research.

The students in the study discussed how food insecurity had eroded their mental health, compromised their physical health, and had negative effects on their study and relationships. These were long-term problems connected to financial deprivation that pre-dated Covid.

From the shocking revelations of the research found by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, it is evident that Universities across Victoria and wider Australia do not have the framework to support students with nutritious food. The gap is widened by financial hardships and income inequality running rife in the community across Victoria. The report suggests that while emergency food relief service from Universities and Student Union’s are a fantastic short term fix to a wider problem, there is little long-term goal for assisting students.

A large response from students in the study said that more affordable food on Campus would be a fair response to solving the crisis, and the need to deprivatise on-campus hospitality.

In future thought, the report finds that food inequality is one key issue which should be addressed by University-funded sustainability hubs, where the spaces should be used to not only create social hubs, but for student-lead canteens for inexpensive food.

Food insecurity is an issue that extends beyond into global morbidity rates, the mental health crisis and sustainability. Therefore it is dire for Universities across the country to address the research as responsibility as possible, to build a frame-work and not leave students behind.

Student Food Insecurity reports that 5 steps are integral to solving the crisis, the resources to tackling the crisis can be found on their website.

  • ImprImproving the accessibility and affordability of nutritious food on campus.
  • Mitigating food insecurity among at risk individuals.
  • Promoting food security in university health frameworks.
  • Improving and streamlining current food programs and evaluating the campus food environment.
  • Promoting food security in curricula, research and through student engagement.

Article Written by Jasper Cohen-Hunter

“This research has been funded by the US Social Research Council, the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.” — Student Food Insecurity

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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