Seven percent of undergraduate students go to lectures without food each day, according to Wits Dean of Students, Dr Pamela Dube.
This figure is based on a study conducted in 2012 by Wits medical school students and on research by the Wits Student Affairs Office and campus security after students were found to be sleeping in university buildings.
The study, conducted by the Siyakhana Initiative for Ecological Health and Food Security, based its research on 387 undergraduate students and looked at 22 campus food points. Its aim was to “assess the food environment on campus, establish the food security status of undergraduate students and investigate the relationship between these two issues.”
“Usually, students who don’t have accommodation and sleep on campus also don’t have something to eat,” said Dube.
According to Dube, the numbers that they got were not as high as initially anticipated, but this was just “one intervention.”
“Some people will take away their blankets where they’re sleeping in the bathroom … or in the seminar rooms … or sometimes only blankets will be found and the person will never be tracked. People tend to also be watchful,” she said.
Seven percent of the students were either “severely or moderately vulnerable to food insecurity” and in some groups, a number of students experienced hunger.
27% of them knew of a fellow student who experienced hunger and more than half had personally experienced some impact on their academic performance, due to hunger.
Initiatives to assist hungry Wits students
The Wits Food Bank, started just over a year ago, is a campaign of the Wits Citizenship and Community Outreach centre (WCCO) and is aimed at curbing food insecurity among students.
It provides students in need with toiletries, clothes, food and if need be, a place to sleep, according to WCCO manager, Karuna Singh.
This year, the WCCO is using Mandela Day (18 July) as a way to encourage larger donations from the Wits community, with the theme: “charity begins at home.”
“We are asking staff members and students to donate food, toiletries and clothes to the Food Bank,” said Singh.
The division of Students Affairs, a partner in the Food Bank project, also works closely with a number of departments, schools and faculties to support students in need. “People do actually come, as much as they fear the stigma,” Dube said. “Our interest is that people perform well and are supported, which means providing them with balanced, nutritious meals.”
As part of a solution, there have been changes in meals catered for at residences, “as this is not just an issue for students in need.”
Students can receive food cards for the Matrix and the university has plans to create a day house where meals can be provided and healthy, mobile food stands around campus.
The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) is also assisting hungry students as it recognises the impact on student performance.
The SRC are continously helping students with food security issues
“[We are] committed to ensuring that all our students are given the best possible environment to perform academically. For some students their poor performance is due to a lack of food and the SRC has interventions available to assist these students,” said SRC president, Shafee Verachia.
According to Verachia, the problem is so prevalent because of the sacrifice students make to come to Wits.
“Some are faced with horrendous circumstances which they try and deal with to make a success of life.” He also feels there is a lack of understanding by some students, who think everything will be provided for them when they get to university. “Nonetheless, the SRC is committed to assisting all of our students.”
The SRC has two ongoing processes available to students. The first is catering for students who have not had a meal in two or more days. The SRC uploads money onto their student card so that they can go to res and get a meal, just like any other student. The second is through the provision of food packs for students who can prepare meals for themselves.