Studies point to link between hunger and student dropouts

Many students at universities throughout the African continent are going without food on a daily basis, prompting concern about the effect on academic performance, according to recent reports.

The increase in the number of hungry students in Africa has in turn put pressure on universities to act urgently in support of vulnerable students. Institutions have been challenged specifically to address the impact of hunger on academic performance.

Food insecurity in Africa was detailed in a report 2017 Global Hunger Index: The Inequalities of Hunger, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The report found that Africa tops the Global Hunger Index, driven by war and climate shocks, and was in line with other reports, including the 2017 Global Report on Food Crises, which indicated that 72% of food insecure people are in Africa.

Saira Khan, chief executive officer of South Africa-based international hunger relief organisation Rise Against Hunger Africa, told University World News that hunger was not conducive to learning "because an empty stomach does not give you an opportunity to learn".

“Therefore, hunger (among students) in universities must be tackled in order to afford students an opportunity to pass,” Khan said, adding that initiatives to address the problem are underway on campuses in South Africa.

Ebenezer Durojaye, project head and senior researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Project at the Dullah Omar Institute of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, said African universities must address student hunger, ranging from the identification of the most vulnerable students to mapping out practical strategies to confront the problem.

Prevalence – hunger is on the increase

While in South Africa there is an acknowledgement of the prevalence of food insecurity among students in tertiary institutions, Durojaye said not much is known about what other African nations are doing to tackle hunger on campuses.

Durojaye said most African university students based in countries with low national food security are suffering from hunger, starvation, malnutrition and-or fear about facing food shortages.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, the former president of the Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Alexandria, Egypt, told University World News that while statistics are unavailable, hunger is on the increase at African universities.

In South Africa, according to Durojaye, many agree that the problem is pervasive but research to quantify the extent of food insecurity at universities is inadequate. Data to assess vulnerability to food insecurity from a sample of 1,083 students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa found that 20.8% of the sample experienced some level of vulnerability to food insecurity, with 16.1% reporting serious levels of vulnerability, and 4.7% experiencing severe to critical levels of vulnerability to food insecurity.

This finding was contained in a 2013 report Hunger for knowledge: Food insecurity among students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In 2015, a report on food insecurity among students showed that 60% of the students at the University of the Free State in South Africa experienced food insecurity ‘with hunger’, and 26% food insecurity ‘without hunger’.

“Food insecure university students are a growing problem in South Africa and an insidious situation because of the stigma attached to being hungry, especially amongst university students. Even more students are facing hunger but are not coming forward,” said Khan.

Academic impact

“[A] hungry stomach defeats the mind’s ability to think and exposes one to psychosocial vulnerabilities,” says Unathi Kolanisi, professor of food security at the school of agricultural, earth and environmental sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, who told University World News. “Subsequent results of hunger in students include high rates of failure, drop-outs and staying long in the academic system.”

Khan concurred, saying that universities in South Africa attribute 40% of failure to hunger. Some suggest that almost 70% of the failure rate is due to hunger.

Several reports have outlined the potential impact of food insecurity on university students’ educational outcomes and social and psychological well-being, including a 2015 study, Food insecurity among students at the University of the Free State which found that severe food insecurity may be contributing to the high attrition rates at universities.

“Urgent intervention is required, as not having access to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food could be one of the reasons why more than 50% of South African university students never graduate,” the study warns.

Current African initiatives

According to Khan, some universities have set up food banks to look after the nutritional needs of students living in poverty. Rise Against Hunger Africa works with some university banks to reach vulnerable students, providing them with meals.

Khan said some universities have set up food gardens to grow fresh produce, thus providing nutritionally balanced meals to students.

Expanding further, Kolanisi said most of the South African universities, especially the previously disadvantaged institutions, were subsidised through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, which provides students with a monthly food allowance in the form of a voucher. The funding forms part of a loan which students must pay back once they get a job.

Some universities have opted for food bursaries and awards.

The Socio Economic Rights Project, or SERP, at South Africa-based Dullah Omar Institute, has embarked on a project to improve access to food for students in South African tertiary institutions, or the Access to Food for Students Project.

To deal with the challenges, Khan said, the first step is to identify food insecure students because of the stigma attached to being hungry, while the second step is raising awareness among students to encourage them to bring extra lunch to share with friends.

“Very often friends don’t know that their own friends are hungry, and to preserve the privacy and dignity of the affected student, we encourage them to share. No one has to admit they are facing food poverty,” Khan said.

The food banks need to identify vulnerable students and encourage sponsors to look at supporting the nutritional needs as well, Khan said.

“We are willing to partner with universities to end hunger and are currently working with the Universities of Johannesburg, Witwatersrand, the Free State, and University of South Africa.”

To fill the gap in research on the issue of food insecurity among students in African tertiary institutions, Durojaye said there should be coordinated research at a national and regional level to identify the universities with the highest prevalence of food insecurity, and determine its effect on attrition rates among university students.

The way forward

Experts generally agree that addressing student food insecurity needs a concerted effort at national and regional levels.

“Hunger is an insidious disease plaguing our society and it can end if we all work together in partnership,” Khan said.