The effects of food insecurity may expand to other areas of a students life.  

Lunchtime at Wits University means different things to different students. While some enjoy their favorite takeouts at the institution’s Matrix building or other food outlets on campus, including dining halls, many others wonder where their next meal is coming from.

Food insecurity can act as an additional burden to students’ academic concerns.

A recent study at the University of the Free State revealed that 64.5% of students at the institution are food insecure, while another one showed that 55% of the students from low income families at the University of KwaZulu-Natal were food insecure.

Vishwas Satgar, a Wits lecturer and activist with the South African Food  Sovereignty Campaign said that while it is difficult to determining the number of food insecure students at Wits, “the institution is not exempt from this problem”.

Sharing these sentiments is Karuna Sigh from the Wits Citizen and Community Outreach programme (WCCO), who said that “hunger, and student hunger specifically, is a national and global challenge which is linked to increased inequality and poverty.

“We have 1000 students on the daily meal programme, and another 3000 through the food bank and gardens,” Singh told Wits Vuvuzela.

The WCCO programme includes a fully equipped communal kitchen where students can cook meals in the evening and seven food gardens around the campus where students can take fresh produce for themselves to supplement the non-perishable food from the food bank which depends on donations from Tiger brands.

“If we do not get any donations we would need at least three-million rand for the Wits Food Bank and three-million rand for the Masidleni daily meal project. We do receive a basic grant from the University Council, but this needs to be supplemented with the amounts mentioned,” Singh said.

“In 2016 when the meal project began, students would queue outside the matrix for a plate of food. We then signed a petition where we requested a space where students could collect their food in a dignified manner. Gourmet chefs are now coming in to help students cook,” Satgar said.

He added that the initiative now includes residences through “food gardens in Sunnyside residence, International house and on West campus to ensure that they provide quality and nutritious food, using spaces that are available”.

A food drive at Wits residence Barnato Hall is also addressing the issue.

“I noticed that students were leaving food at random places on res. Perhaps they had the right intentions when leaving the food, but I guess they just needed a platform, “said Thandiwe Mailula, BEd education, fourth-year student, who is the brains behind the Barnato Food Drive, which took started on Monday, August 5.

“The idea behind this drive is for us residents to assist each other by donating non-perishable food items,” read an email sent to students from the residence’s house committee.

Mailula said that seeing food left at random places within the residence made her think of those who had no access to it.

“It felt as though students were wasting food and personally, I am not a fan of wasting. That is when I approached the Barnato house committee about implementing a food drive initiative.

Barnato residence caters for about 370 students who have a choice between paying for meals on their student account through the dining hall for a maximum amount of R31 528 for about 39 weeks in an academic year, or buying their own groceries, known as the self-catering option.

The dining hall option, combined with a maximum of  R57 720 in  accommodation fees as well as additional tuition fees, could easily reach, if not exceed R100 000 per student per year.

The project is targeted at all students who may need food regardless of whether or not they are self-catering. It also “creates a platform for students to practice their sense of community by taking interest in the needs of others,” Mailula said.

Two boxes, one by the Barnato reception area and another outside the house committee rooms have been placed where students can donate and collect non-perishables food items.

“The box placed outside the house committee rooms is for students who may feel a bit shy about taking food from the drive,” Mailula added.

While these initiatives play a great role in ending hunger, the core of these problems seem to begin with funding and in particular, delays in the payment of NSFAS funding to qualifying students.

However, Kagisho Mamabolo, NSFAS spokesperson said that the delay sometimes occurs from financial aid offices of various institutions.

“It important to note that all universities agreed to administer direct payments of allowances to their students. This means that students from these universities receive their allowances from the institution not from NSFAS,” he said.

According to a statement by the minister of higher education, science and technology Blade Nzimande, NSFAS has funded about 600 000 students at TVET colleges and universities this year.

Qualifying students need to come from a family with a combined annual household income of not more than R350 000 a year; and not more than R600 000 a year if they are living with a disability.

Mamabolo added that there had been no delays in paying students their allowances.

But questions still remain as to whether these allowances are enough to tackle student hunger.

Zizo Ntshawanti, 22, fourth-year BA general, said that while she has been readmitted into the university system since commencing her studies in 2016, her fee statement continues to haunt her.

“I‘ve been on NSFAS since 2016 and I owe the university over R30 000 in outstanding fees. This year I started staying in an off-campus accommodation since my residence reapplication was declined.

“Moving from a catering residence to a self-catering accommodation means that I have to spend money on groceries, stationary and toiletries.

“NSFAS pays me R2 850 after two months, but I have tried to cut costs on food by going to the food bank once,” she told Wits Vuvuzela.

FEATURED IMAGE: Placed by the residence’s reception area, the food drive box makes allowance to either drop-off food for donation and for those who need it to collect it. Photo: Molebogeng Mokoka