University and college food insecurity is a flourishing area of academic inquiry; the number of studies seem to be multiplying weekly. In recent years nutritionists, those in public health, sociologists and anthropologists have taken up the challenge of investigating and exploring this rather insidious issue, which, for those of us involved with higher education, has been sitting under our nose for so long. North American scholars have certainly taken the lead. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work at The Hope Centre and Lisa Henry’s ethnographic work have proven particularly influential.
Although there is still a lot to be learnt everywhere, research on student food insecurity in the Australian context has been slightly behind the ballgame. Hence, during what was a tumultuous 2020 and 2021, we set out to find out more about what it was like being a student experiencing food insecurity at Australian institutions. We recruited 5 co-researchers – also students with lived experiences of food insecurity – who conducted 94 interviews with self-identified food insecure undergrads, postgrads and PhD students, both domestic and international about their experiences with food, studies, work, family, social relationships, finances and housing. We were especially interested in what students thought about the food available on campus and their ideas about solutions to the problem. Although we had planned the research prior to COVID-19, it soon became evident that the pandemic was a very significant event in students’ relationship to food security.
Far from passive in their struggles, we found that students were resourceful agents, constantly hustling to mitigate their hardship from meal prepping at home to the way they went about their shopping. Some students had a forensic knowledge of the free food available at their campus, scheduling their classes so they could eat something to get through the day. Others joined forces, cooking for each other and sharing meals. Amid COVID-10 lockdowns, a few international students even set up small initiatives that partnered with local restaurants to deliver meals to peers.
Navigating time pressures was a big challenge for students, many of whom worked on top of studying and who often struggled to find time for cooking. But with a weekly food budget of $30 to $50 AUD (approx. 22-37 USD), students struggled to sufficiently feed themselves nutritious food, despite many being acutely aware that the sorts of food they were consuming did not support their body. As one student proclaimed: “God, I miss fruit!”.
Involving students in finding solutions to food insecurity is key. The students we spoke with were keen to share their ideas. They reflected on what they saw as their rights as students to access affordable and nutritious food on campus. Some critiqued food waste when they knew that students and others in their community are hungry. Several called for solutions that considered sustainability like campus agriculture and gardens. International students brought up the idea of a university run canteen, offering $3-$5 meals for students and staff. Others emphasized the importance of spreading awareness of student food insecurity on campus to counter the shame and stigma so many students spoke about experiencing.
There is no doubt that Australian institutions can look to North America for inspiration when it comes to addressing the problem of food insecurity. However, future programs and initiatives should focus on listening to students and engaging them as leaders: not just volunteers at the pantry.
You can find out more about the research how emphasis on student agency, both individually and collectively, in research and practice could change the way we approach the problem and move us beyond food charity and pantries as solutions at https://www.studentfoodinsecurity.com/.