The challenges of hunger among students in higher education in South Africa

The issue of student hunger on university campuses has gained prominence in light of the #feesmustfall movement that has encapsulated South Africa tertiary institutions since 2015. While there are no tangible statistics that reflect the scope of the problem, the issue of students lacking basic needs, both food and shelter, has gained significant traction among university administrators.

To restart the conversation over access to food for students in South African tertiary institutions, the Dullah Omar Institute organised a two-day national Colloquium (13-14 August 2018) in conjunction with the Centre of Excellence in Food Security (jointly hosted by the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria) and with support and partnership from FORD Foundation.

The crux of the colloquium was guided by four main questions. Firstly, Who has the obligations to realise the right to food of students in tertiary institutions?; Secondly, what is the role of different stakeholders in realising the right to food of students in tertiary institutions? ; Thirdly, Do non-state actors or private corporations have any duty to address food insecurity and hunger among students in tertiary institutions?; Fourth, What is the best approach to addressing food insecurity among students of tertiary institutions in South Africa?

The Colloquium brought together different stakeholders involved in enabling access to food for students in South African tertiary Institutions which include government officials, policy makers, student leaders, academics, representatives from civil society organisations and human rights activists.

In her good will message, Prof. Pamela Dube the Deputy Vice Chancellor responsible for Student Development and Support at the University of The Western Cape welcomed participants to the Colloquium, which as the first of its kind in the Western Cape. While contextualising the issue, she said South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and because of this food security among students at universities across campuses in South Africa is a very real and a very tragic as majority of students affected by this come from a society with high levels of poverty.

While she highlighted that student, hunger is a reality in most institutions of higher learning in South Africa, she cautiously acknowledged that “the politics of giving and taking and the challenges of dependency and recognises the need to empower students as part of a comprehensive upskilling programme to address self-dependency.” She urged that “we cannot have students who come to university to learn stressing about not having food to eat and compromising themselves just so they can have a meal.”

While giving the keynote address, Dr. Stephen Devereux, the South Africa- United Kingdom (SA-UK) Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection in Food Security (SARChI), based at the Centre of Excellence in Food Security, noted that although the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) plays a major role in student food insecurity crisis at tertiary institutions in South Africa it had become incompetent. “If you think about the food part of the bursaries that students at UWC get at Pick & Pay voucher for 6 months of R2000 that is R4000 a year to live off it is clearly inadequate in a country which is faced with rapid and higher food price inflation.”

He emphasised that it is a myth that if you can afford to get into the university shouldn’t be able to afford the basic needs adding that “...because students are ashamed and embarrassed to come forward, so the problem is even worse than what we are measuring.” He indicated that accumulating evidence suggests that food insecurity among students in universities is higher than in South African households. Referring to studies from United States and Australia on food insecurity among students in tertiary institutions, Dr Devereux pointed that students are more likely to be food insecure than others in the population. He recommended that student hunger as an invisible crisis should be prioritised at the highest policy level. 

Testimonials and presentations by student leaders representing the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) from University of Cape Town (UCT), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Stellenbosch University, University of the Western Cape, all pointed that students are often hungry, they have little to no food to eat, or when they do eat have unhealthy eating habits. These was especially true for those from poor backgrounds and those who were often first-generation students in their families, and in terms of demographics are predominately black and coloured. They emphasised that “race is the strongest predictor of student food insecurity.” They pointed out that influenced by the availability of food in terms of quality, prices and availability of money to purchase it.

As on how to Influence the policy space to guarantee access to food for students in South African tertiary institutions, Mr Mondli Mbhele deputy director in charge of the Food and Nutrition Security Coordination at the National Department of Social Development, indicated that in order for the department of social development to set-up a food bank similar to those set up in vulnerable communities, it needed to first better understand the extent and scope of food insecurity at tertiary institution in order to develop appropriate interventions. He highlighted although short-term emergency solutions, such as food banks and food pantries, may be useful, upstream solutions to address basic needs of vulnerable students are imperative.

On the recent revised National Student Financial Aid Scheme, Dr. Diana Parker from the Department of Higher Education and Training emphasised that it is clear that the government is committed to free higher education for poor and working-class students

On the other hand, Laetitia McAvoy Permall Director of the Centre for Student Support Services highlighted that the consequences of food insecurity for students can be very serious and can lead to impaired academic performance due to the reduced ability to concentrate on studying or poor performance in exams that could led to students drop out. Student hunger can also compound to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide. Mrs Permall urged that there is a link between lack of nutritionally adequate food and student attrition.

As to the question of how student tertiary institutions can realise the right to food, as promised in the South African constitution, Prof Ebenezer Durojaye, Dr Bright Nkrumah, Dr Emma Lubaale emphasised that there is a role of advocacy/mobilisation in addressing food insecurity among students. The discussion raced student activity and voices that were projected during the #feesmustfall protests in 2015 – 2016 had brought to the fore the issue of student hunger. There was a consensus that the significant role of NSFAS  as beyond just a bursary loan for students.

In search of a policy directive, it was observed that non-state actors or private corporations have a duty to address food insecurity and hunger among students in tertiary institutions. In a discussion panel, representatives from Moshal Foundation’s Ms Nokuthula Zama, Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation’s Ms Alice Moyo ,Wits Citizenship and Community Outreach Office’s Ms Karuna Singh, Foundation for Human Rights’s Mr Enver Moothoosamy, all acknowledged that philanthropy has played a crucial role in the tertiary education sector.  

As to what is the best approach to addressing food insecurity among students of tertiary institutions in South Africa, the Colloquium concluded that academics and university staff should not be responsible for feeding their students. As to what are some of the glaring gaps in research, participants were interested to find out on what are the gender dimension of food insecurity and whether transactional sex for financial gains and/or food products is used by female students as a coping mechanism in the face of student hunger.


In 2017,the Socio-Economic Rights Project (SERP) at Dullah Omar Institute, embarked on a project known as ‘Access to Food for Students in South African Tertiary Institutions’ (Access to Food for Students Project). This Project considers the problems of food insecurity amongst students at tertiary institutions in South Africa an area requiring urgent attention by all stakeholders.  

The project is subdivided into exploratory and implementation phases. The exploratory phase of this project tackled the issues from a ‘fact finding’ perspective, whilst the implementation phase seeks to heighten advocacy with a view to addressing systemic issues as well as call for policy review on food security among students of higher institutions. The two-day national colloquium is part of an implementation phase of the project.