Talking hunger: understanding food insecurity on campus

Understanding and addressing food insecurity at the University of Melbourne

A significant proportion of university students in Australia experience food insecurity. Socio-economic and cultural differences affect students’ ability to access healthy, nutritious and affordable food on campus.

Poor nutrition and food-related stress can negatively impact the academic performance and mental health of the most vulnerable students. Until recently, this has largely been an invisible issue. Most universities in Australia, including the University of Melbourne, do not have institutional policies or programs in place to support students experiencing food insecurity.

A new research project at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, funded by the University Student Services and Amenities Fee Grant Program, aims to address this.

Talking Hunger: Understanding food insecurity on campus used participatory research methods to gain a better qualitative understanding of the problem at the University of Melbourne and brainstormed possible solutions.

Student co-researchers were trained to interview other students about their experiences of food insecurity. The findings from this research have been discussed in a podcast that aims to start a conversation about student food insecurity on campus. There is also a Summary Report of the project available in the Publication and Media tab.

According to some estimates, 1 in 3 students in Australia suffers from food insecurity. How are students thinking about and managing this problem?

University of Melbourne researchers Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis, Associate Professor Jane Dyson and Professor Craig Jeffrey teamed up with four student co-researchers, all featured in this podcast, to carry out research on student food insecurity and young people's agency.

In this podcast, Professor Craig Jeffrey interviewed the four student co-researchers to discuss what they learned from their own interviews with 40 food insecure students at the University of Melbourne about the challenges they have faced.

The students included both domestic and international, undergraduate and postgraduate students. The interviews were conducted in mid-2020, during the COVID-19 crisis, but students also discussed their experiences of food insecurity pre-COVID.

This research was funded by a University of Melbourne Student Services Fee Amenity Grant, a Social Science Research Council COVID Research Grant, and the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.

We also acknowledge the assistance in the development of this work of Charlene Edwards, Sara Guest, Sophie Lamond and Eugenia Zoubtchenko; and to Xia Cui and the Faculty of Arts for the production of the podcast.

Podcast Transcript

Craig Jeffrey:

Hi, my name is Craig Jeffrey. I'm a professor of Geography at the University of Melbourne. I'd like to welcome you to this special podcast on student food insecurity. I know for some listeners, this might be a new topic, but we hope to convince you over the podcast of the seriousness of the question of food insecurity on campus across the world and also in Australia and at the University of Melbourne.

There's been some research in Australia recently, particularly in Queensland that suggested that up to a third of all students on university campuses may be suffering from some type of food insecurity and COVID-19 over the course of 2020 has thrown this issue into really sharp relief. But there hasn't been much research on student food insecurity and most studies that have happened to tended to use quite broad based surveys of students rather than in-depth interviews. Also the existing work doesn't look very much at students' own views of how food insecurity might be effectively addressed.

In this podcast with talking about a project that addresses this research gap. This is research that I had carried out at the University of Melbourne with my colleagues Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis from the School of Agriculture and Food. Dr Jane Dyson from the School of Geography and Eugenia Zoubtchenko and Charlene Edwards from the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. We received funding from a University Student Services and Amenities Fee Grant to examine student food insecurity on campus.

Now it's important to note this research was co-designed and conducted with four student co-researchers. All of these co-researchers had personal experience of food insecurity at the University of Melbourne. All of them happened to be Master's students, and they've all been involved in designing the research and then conducting interviews with other students. So each of the co-researchers did interviews with roughly nine or 10 other students who had experienced food insecurity in the course of their studies at the university.

So in this podcast, I'm going to be talking to those four co-researchers, those students who were doing research with other students about what they found. I'm going to be talking to them about their own experience of food insecurity and I'll be talking to them about what they learned from discussing this issue with their peers. Not having enough food is obviously a sensitive issue. So all the student names in this podcast have been changed. The co-researchers have all adopted pseudonyms, and I'm also making sure that we avoid any other identifying details to protect anonymity of all the research participants.

As I said, I'm going to be talking to four students. They are Helena and then Ann, and then Claire, and then Ashrini. And what I try to do is I'm going to be talking to each of them about a different aspect of the research, a different topic in relation to food insecurity. So without further ado, I want to move straight into talking to Helena, who is the first co-researcher who's going to join me about the problem of food insecurity. Helena, thank you very much for joining me for the podcast.

Helena:

Thank you so much, Craig. It's a pleasure to be here.

Craig Jeffrey:

You're someone who was obviously motivated to join this research. You've wanted to find out more about food insecurity and you have also the personal experience of this issue. I wonder if I could just start by getting you to reflect a little bit about why you think it is a big issue on campus and at the University of Melbourne. Where have you seen this issue crop up? Why do you think it's important at the moment?

Helena:

Well, the key reason why food insecurity is important, isn't just because of COVID changing things around making financial situations and personal circumstances much worse, but also the fact that food insecurity is such a normalised thing. It's almost expected to be part of a student's culture and not having enough food to eat shouldn't be normalised. As a student, you have so many things to do and you rely on energy to get you through the day. And if you don't have enough energy, whether that be because you can't afford the food or maybe the food wasn't healthy, then there's no way you will be able to survive university.

Craig Jeffrey:

Can you just give us a sense of how you've experienced food insecurity. What that kind of looks like at the kind of everyday level?

Helena:

Yeah, so personally food insecurity was mainly due to a lack of, I guess, funds. The thing that kept coming up throughout our interviews was that there wasn't enough healthy food and there wasn't enough food. And this was especially applicable to students who are studying in buildings that are far away from the Student Union. So for example, if you start your commerce subject and you are at the business school, you are heavily reliant on the cafe that they have, nothing against the cafe. I'm sure they're great. They are very expensive for a student's budget. And so that's how students tend to skip meals or just not buy anything at all because they either can't afford the food or they don't have enough time to come to the main campus.

Helena:

And so even if you are on the main campus, the options available for students from the student union building or all the other little cafes and coffee shops, it's still slightly, or maybe out of a student's budget, depending on the student's personal circumstances. So for example, a student who is living away from home are obviously much more constrained and that's quite true for many rural students as well as students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds who probably had to use up all of their money or most of their money on rent. That's why it's so important to have cheaper options and healthy options as well because students can't survive on instant noodles every day for three years.

Craig Jeffrey:

Right. Right. So you mentioned them skipping meals, do you think that's common than students not eating anything if you happen to be in that building and there's an expensive cafe and you can't afford to eat there, what's the way of coping with that?

Helena:

Personally, I have experienced skipping meals in terms of, if you just don't have enough time and you don't have enough money to buy a big sandwich and you forgot to bring food from home. Students that we interviewed, the common theme that ran throughout these interviews was that they did not have enough money to pay for the overpriced food, especially if they're trying to budget for rent as well. And this was particularly true for international students who highlighted how expensive food is in Melbourne, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. So these students come from cultures and backgrounds where fresh food was easily available. It was cheap and you can buy them anywhere. And as soon as you come to Melbourne, not only do they have to deal with the culture shock of being in a different city, different country, but also they can't access the food that comforts them the most. These healthy food that they were so used to.

Helena:

That's how maybe students just don't feel up to it. They would skip meals or they don't have enough time to buy the healthy food. And they don't want to eat unhealthy food as well. It's kind of a catch 22 situation. You can't eat unhealthy food because you'll be sick. And if you're sick, then you will have to seek out medical treatment and as an international student, that could be expensive. But at the same time, if you don't eat food, then you wouldn't be able to do your job properly. You can't study.

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. That contrast between domestic students and international students is really interesting that that came up in your conversations. I guess one of the things that people often ask is this a problem of a lack of money or is it a problem of a lack of information? Is it the case that it's people just don't know where the inexpensive food is? Or is it a problem actually that those outlets for inexpensive food just don't exist and people don't have enough money to buy the food that's there?

Helena:

Through the interviews that we did with these students, it's definitely a bit of both and one leads to the other. So for example, if you don't have enough money, then you don't have enough energy to do your study, let alone try to seek out inexpensive means of food. Especially when you are in a different country, you don't know their language very well, it makes everything about a thousand times harder.

Craig Jeffrey:

It's all bundled up together.

Helena:

Yes. And if you don't have enough information, then that's also not good because that means you won't be able to care for yourself that well. A lot of students actually talked about being worried about the healthiness of what they cooked. It puts a strain on them as well, financially, because if you don't know where to look, then you're going to run out of my money quite fast.

Craig Jeffrey:

Lots of students are living in student accommodation where there may be cooking for themselves for the first time. What are the challenges there, do you think? Was that something that came up in your conversations much?

Helena:

Yeah. Yeah. Most of the students talked about how they mainly only cook what they know and they're constrained by time. My personal experience of that as well, when I moved out I usually had to bulk cook. So I meal preped quite a lot, and I was forced to learn how to cook in order to use seasonal ingredients that were cheaper at the time. And so when you put learning how to cook on top of studying and a really hefty degree, such as a postgraduate degree, which isn't cheap, it makes everything's about a thousand times more stressful. And so the challenges in cooking at home were mostly around the cost of groceries and a lack of cooking skills, essentially.

Helena:

One particular participant that we interviewed highlighted that whether she can cook or not depends on whether her housemates were using the kitchen or not, her housemates tended to be dirty. And so if you've got studying and cooking and cleaning the kitchen at the same time, it makes life much harder. So definitely the availability and the people around you plays a huge role in whether students can cook at home. So just simply telling students, "Oh, if you can't afford food, then just cook it at home." Well, you haven't been in my home, have you?

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. Well, that's really interesting. And I know in terms of strategies, what are the ways that students actually trying to get round this? Because you sometimes see that there's free food on campus. What are they doing?

Helena:

I guess it all comes down to who and if they can grab a sausage for you in the line, because when it comes to free food, the number one barrier that students talked about was the timing. So it didn't fit with their schedules, or they just did not want to wait one hour for a free sausage, that was too much for them. And that's definitely understandable. You don't want to waste one hour of your time just grabbing a bread and a sausage. And so what students have done to kind of get around this was, some of them befriended people who are in charge of student clubs, and when that particular student club had an event, then they would try to grab one or two things if they can. And usually they will try to get an early to the free breakfasts that UMSU (the Student Union) holds, for example. But again even though the free food is available, it inconveniences students. And again, when you put that on top of studying, they shouldn't have to try to beg for free food.

Craig Jeffrey:

But you're saying that, that is happening. I mean, in the sense of students are sort of hanging around for long periods of time for sausage sizzle?

Helena:

They are. Personally, when you walk around the student union building on, was it Tuesdays? Wednesdays?

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah.

Helena:

You could see such a long line. And it definitely takes an hour just to wait and grab that sausage. But again, it comes back to the point where students should not have to beg for food just because they can't afford it.

Craig Jeffrey:

I think when we spoken before you've talked, Helena about relying on just very few sort of sources of food to sustain your day or through a couple of days, is that something that came up more generally in your interviews, people having to survive on a few muesli bars or that kind of thing? Is that common, do you think?

Helena:

I mean, I can't speak for the entire population, but for the students that we interviewed, it was a common theme where they would try to make something last for an entire week. So one student that I actually interviewed was a post graduate health student, and she talked about how she would grab the free pasta, free muesli bars, free oats and that stuff from the student union. And that would last him for the entire week, no matter how much food that she got. Purely because she did not have enough money to buy anything else. It's almost an endemic thing, I would be brave enough to say. Because situations like these, aren't something that people talk about. People don't want to be seen as the one that gets the handouts in an institution like in University of Melbounre, where people have this perception of you as being, I guess, like a world-class kind of student, and you don't want to be seen as that student who had to survive on pasta for an entire week.

Craig Jeffrey:

Is there anything, and I'm going to be talking to others about this too, but I mean, this has been really helpful in terms of outlining the issue Helena, and it's obviously it's a really serious issue. It's very unsettling and lots of people listening to this will be very unsettled by this and for some it will be familiar for some, it won't be familiar, but I wonder from your personal point of view, if there's one thing that maybe the university or even the government or someone else or students themselves could do to address this, what would that one thing be, do you think? I don't want to put you on the spot too much.

Helena:

No, that's fine. That's fine.

Craig Jeffrey:

You can say no comment or

Helena:

I'm just Kind of think about it. No, I think this is what another student also said during the interview and I whole-heartedly agree, is that the roots of all these problems is money. So students not having enough funds is normalised, which leads to them not eating food or skipping food. And the fact that the university hasn't tried to meet them halfway, that's an incredibly disappointing thing to see. Say if the government can't do much for money these days, because of COVID everyone's a bit strained. There's one thing that the university could do. I honestly believe it is to meet students halfway, give students affordable food, healthy food as well. That's incredibly important in this era. Increasing prevalence of metabolic disease and stuff. We don't want students not being able to perform at their best. Students doing well should be at the heart of the university's interests and the universities should do whatever they can to support students.

Craig Jeffrey:

Fantastic. I'm taking time out of your busy day, and it's been really great chatting to you. Thanks so much for talking. I don't know if there's anything else you wanted to add, Helena before we go?

Helena:

Actually, if there's one thing that I would like to highlight and it's that projects such as these are really important and it is just like the exploring the tip of an iceberg. So I do implore that whoever listens to this podcast to have a chat with your friends, see how their financial and their food situation is going, see if there's anything they can do to help their friends. And hopefully one day being broke should not be normalised and should not be part and expect it to be part of a student's culture.

Craig Jeffrey:

Thank you so much. That is really wonderful to to chat to you, Helena. Thank you for taking the time and good luck with your studies.

Helena:

Thank you so much, Craig. It's been so great having you.

Craig Jeffrey:

Well, that was really fascinating. So much there in the conversation with Helena about the differences between domestic students and international students that Helena observed in terms of exposure to this problem. I think really interesting on the kind of geographies of availability of food on campus and what that means in terms of people's access to food and a real sense of the challenge, both in terms of getting healthy, affordable food on campus, but also in terms of cooking at home. What we're going to do in this second interview with Ann is actually look a little bit more at the implications of food insecurity for other areas of students' lives. Because one thing that we've noticed in our conversations with the co-researchers has been that food insecurity is a problem in of itself in terms of the access to food, but it also has these knock-on effects, it seems in terms of people's mental health, physical health, their studies and their relationships. And that's where I really want to be talking about with Ann. Hi Ann thank you for joining the podcast.

Ann:

Thanks so much for having me on Craig.

Craig Jeffrey:

Maybe start anywhere you like, but in terms of the sort of knock-on effects of food insecurity, what's really sort of stood out for you in terms of either your own experience or talking to others?

Ann:

One of the main knock on effects, I think that has come about, it's how does it affect your relationships? How does it affect your ability to chat about this kind of stuff with your friends and things like that? Because I think what I found from my own experiences, but also from talking to other students who are also experiencing the same things is that, a lot of people do find it to be shrouded in stigma and not able to discuss it with their friends, a bit of an isolating experience. And so I think that's maybe a knock on effect that people don't expect. It's not just not being able to get enough food or enough healthy food or the food that you would like, but how that then impacts what kind of time you spend with your friends and who you feel like you can open up to as well.

Craig Jeffrey:

That's really interesting. Do you think it's therefore a bit of a hidden problem?

Ann:

Yeah, I think it is. I think actually really interestingly, a couple of people I have chatted to through this research, this was the first time they had told anyone about it. And I know for myself, I haven't really discussed it with others either. It's not something I feel super comfortable about because you're really opening up and talking about something you haven't maybe talked about with other people before. So I think that we're really only getting to the tip of the iceberg and maybe now with this year and mental health becoming such a more prominent topic and people feeling way more open to talking about that, that hopefully something similar could happen with this, that food insecurity could become a topic that isn't as hidden as it is now. But I think at the moment it is quite there are under the surface, but we aren't really seeing the full effects.

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. I suppose one of the things that's evidenced in lots of universities is that students often have quite different resources at their disposal. There may be some that actually do quite well and do have enough to not just manage to get all the right food, but to actually eat very well on campus or in the city, is that something you've noticed that there's quite a lot of inequality among students? And does that affect people's relationships, do you think, in terms of making friends and keeping friends in university?

Ann:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it does. I mean, I can only speak from experience with Melbourne uni, but I think there is a really clear inequality scale, there are really big differences between the students that go to the university and that does play out through the food choices that people have at their access, at their disposal. And so a lot of the places on campus or right near campus are quite fancy and it can be really nice to go and experience those food options. But like I know there was one student in particular that I chatted to that, going out to a restaurant had to be a planned activity. It had to be planned into their weekly budget. And obviously because it is a social interaction and you do want to be hanging out with your friends, that is an important part of your planning, but if friends are just kind of off the cuff being like, "Oh, let's go out to lunch today."

That kind of not worrying about having to plan that into your budget and their schedule, I think that really plays out a lot and it leaves some students feeling like they're missing out on a lot of other social or networking opportunities because they're not able to just join people for coffee or for lunch off the cuff. There's that trade off that they're playing in their minds on whether or not that's worth going out for that one time and that could mean not having enough to eat really healthy meals for the next few days. I think a few students have really spoken to that effect and I do think it does show some inequalities, and that playing out in that social field as well.

Craig Jeffrey:

I mean, that's really interesting because no one thinks of maybe their lecturer or the tutor or as you're saying, like a group of friends saying, let's go for coffee and talk about ideas, talking about what's come up today. And if that investment in the coffee is actually going to unsettle your weekly budget in a major way, then obviously it has this exclusionary effect. And I don't know how well understood that is within the university, but it's a very powerful kind of insight. I wonder if I could go back to something you said about mental health and then really ask you about the relationship between food insecurity and ill-health generally, not just mental health, but more generally people's physical health and overall sense of wellbeing. Is this something that you've noticed as a strong theme? As I said at the beginning, you've been interviewing quite a few students. It's a topic that you're very interested in. Is it something that has come up a lot?

Ann:

Yeah. I think the students that I did chat to, all had an interest in food, which was really good. And so potentially they are slightly biased and that they do want to be eating healthy food and the appropriate type of food, but a lot of them did raise concerns about potentially not being able to afford foods that they thought had the right range of minerals, or enough protein was a big one as well. Quite a few students I've chatted to, and myself included, are vegetarian and that isn't only for environmental or ethical reasons, but also because it is much cheaper and you can really afford to spend a lot more money on vegetables than you can on meat and so that I think does have a really big impact.

But concerns on health I think it does if you're eating maybe two minute noodles, I know one girl I did chat to early on, she was quite food insecure and worried about her nutrition and that was because she couldn't afford to buy a lot of nutritious food. So she did feel like she was sacrificing her health. And mental health comes into that as well. If you're worried about what you're eating and you're concerned about your physical health, then of course you're going to increase the anxiety over that as well. So I think that really all is intertwined.

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. And I suppose that students who have particular health issues that they're managing, and then experience food insecurity, you have been a real issue there. I mean, I'm thinking about students who might be diabetic or have particular issues whereby they need to be very careful about what they eat, and if you don't have enough money for diverse and healthy food, there's a particular problem. Is that something you've noticed at all?

Ann:

Yeah. That's really interesting that you brought that up because that's exactly a couple of the situations that we got to speak to students about. So one of them was diabetic, and access to healthy food is critical. And she really struggled around that another post-grad international student that we got to talk to had polycystic ovarian syndrome and a really good way to treat that is through healthy eating. But if she's on campus and there isn't that access to healthy food right available there in her budget, then she won't be able to access that either. And thirdly, another gentleman I spoke to he had Celiac disease and so again, he really, really struggled to be able to find appropriate options for him on campus. So that then led to him having to bring in food, which was a common theme that we found. But then the time that goes into that as well, I think that all comes into play with your studies and balancing your time appropriately. That was a really big point as well.

Craig Jeffrey:

That's really interesting about studies because I guess that a lot of people would say, and I'm sure there's people who've done lots of research on this before, I certainly find this in my own life, there's a close relationship between what you eat and how you think and your capacity to concentrate. And the sugar rush might allow you to think very carefully and cleverly for half an hour or an hour, but you have the down afterwards where suddenly that your mind starts swimming. So if you're not able to find the right nutritious and healthy, filling food on campus, or be able to prepare that at home, or find it in the city, and then you come to the lecture or you're trying to write an essay or working in a laboratory, there must be an effect there. Is that something that's come up at all, either in terms of your own experience, Ann, or in terms of the students that you've talked to in the research?

Ann:

Yeah, it's actually, I think come up both personally and through discussing it with other students, is that you have a lot less energy to study. If you have quite an unhealthy meal you often feel very lethargic and it kind of drags you down. And I think the healthy food really helps you sleep. It improves how you feel about yourself. It helps you concentrate. And then having that also that additional anxiety potentially over what you're eating and you are not eating well enough food that can also have an overhanging effect as well. And a lot of students really did express a lot of desire to want to be able to eat healthy foods, because they could see a direct correlation between that and the type of study they were able to do, and how good they felt about themselves, which all kind of help paint a picture of them being successful in the uni environment and being able to accomplish what they wanted to.

Craig Jeffrey:

That's been really interesting and also unsettling in lots of ways. And I really appreciate your coming on the podcast and talking about your own experiences and also what you've gleaned from what sound like very rich interviews with other students. I did particularly want to talk to you about this question of the knock-on effects because I'm talking to others about the problem itself, and I'm going to be talking to some of your peers about some of the solutions that students find, or that we might think about in the future. But this point that you've made that food insecurity is something that is not limited to being a problem about food. It's something that affects studies, that affects your health, that affects potentially relationships with people, I think is really interesting. Is there anything you want to add though under that general umbrella, anything that we haven't talked about that you think has been really important?

Ann:

I will say. I think one of the really interesting things that I think I found by talking to a lot of different people that maybe I wouldn't have been able to chat to in my normal life, or who wouldn't have opened up to me in the same way, was the contrast and the difference that culture plays as well. I think that sometimes domestic students who are maybe more used to talking about these kinds of really personal, sensitive issues were more open to discussing this, and maybe had a better support network with their friends and family even to some extent, whereas a lot of international students really did seem to hold these fears and these worries in themselves, and that honestly,it was really amazing that they wanted to be involved in research and they were happy talking about it with me and the other co-researchers. But I think that this fear of stigma is a really big concern. And I think that a lot needs to be done to be able to hopefully, find a solution to that.

Craig Jeffrey:

I can't resist asking you because you ended on that point about the solution to the stigma, I guess that there is a parallel potentially here between what we're discussing and how people have been talking about mental health recently. So I wonder, are there any lessons that might be learned for how people have tried to address the stigma around mental health that could be transferred to the key about making food insecurity or a lack of access to healthy, nutritious food, less embarrassing as a topic?

Ann:

This was something that came up in a few of my interviews. I don't know whether it's because I feel really passionate about the topic. So I wanted to chat about it with people and see what they had to say as well. I think a lot of people just really emphasised raising awareness. I thought that was key. That was critical because if you know two people that have talked about it openly, then you will feel much less intimidated, I guess, is a word that you could use to talk about it too. And I think also the university creating a positive authorizing environment where people feel like these issues are common as well.

The university has been really proactive in advertising caps and psychological services and they have then subsidised mental healthcare sessions that you can access through the university whereas there doesn't seem to be that level of support to help the students who are struggling in terms of food, even though they do offer the food co-op and they have free breakfasts, which are all really, really helpful. I don't think there's that same level of interest and push from the university to make sure that this is an issue that's addressed.

Craig Jeffrey:

Ann, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and it's been really illuminating. So thank you and good luck with your Master's degree and thank you for helping to think about this really important problem. And I think we've gained from talking to you and even clearer sense of just how serious this issue is. So thanks.

Ann:

Thank you very much for having me on. I really hope this can help some people out there as well.

Craig Jeffrey:

Well, that was another really interesting, and I think I said it in the conversation with Ann, unsettling, and spoke so articulately about so much, but if I was to pick out a couple of things that really struck me. One was the question of the kind of embarrassment or shame even was a word that Ann used that sometimes accompanies the conversations around food insecurity, which contributes to making this issue often one that is quite hidden, even among students. And the second thing that struck me was just that story that Ann told about going out for food and maybe weighing up whether you will spend money in a coffee shop or in a cafe on a relatively expensive coffee or meal, knowing that actually, if you do make that expenditure, it's going to have knock-on effects in terms of your capacity to manage over the next few days. And I think that really powerfully brings home how important this issue is and how much it's affecting some sections of the student body.

I'm going to go on now and talk to Claire about actually how students try and manage on campus. So really getting a sense of the extent to which they're making use of the facilities available, things like food banks, free food on campus, but also I want to ask a little bit about how things might've changed as a result of COVID-19. So it's clear that the issue preceded COVID-19, it was a problem before the pandemic came along, but the pandemic has introduced perhaps new problems and perhaps also given us some insights into potential solutions. So welcome Claire.

Claire:

Thanks Craig.

Craig Jeffrey:

And I want to talk to you particularly about how students manage in the context of food insecurity. So I've already spoken to Helena and Ann about the problem. And we've learned about the issue and about how food insecurity tends to have all sorts of knock-on effects in terms of health, in terms of study in terms of relationship. But I wanted to talk to you particularly about this question of coping on campus and coping more generally because obviously it's clear, this is a big issue. Food insecurity, you've said is something that you've experienced yourself. I'm interested in, what are students doing to circumvent this problem? What are they doing to manage it?

Claire:

Well, students are actually really quite resourceful. I mean, when they need to be they're finding deals, looking for discounts, looking for freebies and free meals, and they're also sharing that kind of information with all their friends. So some examples of that that students talked about were student specific apps. Food delivery coupons, which I use a lot myself, if you can get a really good deal for food that's delivered and you can use that food for a few days. Buying groceries that are close to use by date, and taking advantage of those end of day offers in the food courts for take-away food boxes, some students have talked about those as well. But really it's about being active. They're quite active in seeking out strategies to cope.

Craig Jeffrey:

Right. What about food banks? Are they being used a lot, do you think?

Claire:

I don't think that they are, and I haven't heard of them being used a lot. A few students that I spoke to did mention small food banks provided through religious and cultural organizations, but at that time we didn't really have the big ones in the city and there wasn't a lot of publicity around them. So I've found in talking to students, they didn't know what was available. They didn't know if there was a food bank in their area or what the requirements were or how it worked. So I think there are definite challenges around the promotion of these types of services.

Craig Jeffrey:

What about the changes during COVID-19? Because of course we've seen, in some respects, this problem of food insecurity deepen as perhaps students don't get access to the same work that they formerly had and therefore are more financially constrained, but we've also seen efforts by the University of Melbounre and by the government to address the problem of food insecurity. It's become more obvious during COVID-19. Have you noticed a big difference there?

Claire:

COVID has been really challenging for a lot of people. I mean, students, particularly, and food insecurity is a big challenge. And like you said, there's been a lot of job losses. A lot of students spoke about losing their job or also about losing income from their home countries or allowances that they were getting due to challenges in their home countries due to COVID, if they're an international student. And the way that affected students has been really different. So for some students, this has put them in the situation of food insecurity for the first time, and they've suddenly faced this challenge that they don't have a lot of experience with but they're suddenly having to count every dollar they spend on food and budgeting in ways they didn't before, and having to cut out types of food that they previously really enjoyed, particularly certain fruits and vegetables that are a little bit more expensive.

Claire:

But some students described ongoing challenges. So they were already experiencing these difficulties before COVID and then COVID has caused two different paths with that, where some students, it is then further exacerbated problems they were already having around affordability of food in Melbourne. So they've actually found it increasingly difficult, and particularly they have not been able to access the things like free barbecues on campus that they were previously utilised to have lunch. So they're skipping meals and things. But on the other hand, some students have found that because of COVID, the university, the government are actually offering all these services now and support that weren't necessarily as extensive in the past. So they've actually found that really helpful. And if you can draw out a positive from the COVID situation, it's that food insecurity is becoming more publicly visible and less hidden. Students said that they now talk openly with their friends about struggles to afford things, whereas before nobody really spoke about it and you kind of hid that away.

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. How interesting. That's a really interesting point. So that sense of COVID being a kind of a mixed bag. I mean, is there anything from the COVID the way that the government and the universities handled this situation that could be kind of used and maintained in the period after the pandemic, given that we both know and it's been a common theme that the issue of food insecurity long predated COVID-19, it's just that people didn't talk about it very much. So is there anything that could be kind of maintained here, do you think?

Claire:

Well, the students really have found things like ready meals from the university useful. That's been really handy for a lot of people and a lot of students have said they really want to see that continue even into next year. And another thing was international students were talking about the Queen Victoria Market vouchers that were given out and that was helpful for them. So I think these kinds of things, we've shown that we're able to do it. The government's able to do it. Businesses are able to do the offerings. The university is able to provide more. So it's something that really should continue on afterwards.

Craig Jeffrey:

Can I just take you back to something you said just now that really struck me and it's come up in several conversations. I haven't been doing the interviews like you, but just from what I've heard about this research, you talked about the sausage sizzles and the going around them to try and get your lunch, the impression I get, and Claire, if you could sort of fill out this picture, the impression I get is this kind of hustle students on campus. Sort of just scouring the landscape for opportunities to get cheap or free food. Is that something you've noticed, is that accurate? Is that this kind of hustle going on?

Claire:

There definitely is for some students. For some students, this seeking out free food or something discounted is quite important and it becomes even an important part of their week or their day. And some students describing timing their breaks or their arrival to campus to coincide with free breakfasts or barbecues from the Student Union or from clubs, or really like actively seeking out clubs that had events with free food is really common. Or even I heard stories of going to symposiums or speeches that had free food at the end. Rushing off to the food courts at Melbourne Central to get those boxes that are cheaper at the end of the day. Students definitely structure their days and their schedules around it.

Craig Jeffrey:

Sure. I think it really makes me reflect as someone who teaches at the university that, often when people are organizing events at university they say, "Well, we'll lay on some free food because that'll make it attractive to students." Almost necessarily people will say that in a kind of lighthearted way. But actually what you're describing is students for whom that's actually survival. That's actually about making university study possible. And I don't think that's, at least I hadn't fully appreciated that before embarking on this research. No, actually I looking back at my own language around this, I was being rather flippant about something that was actually really very serious. And presumably actually also for lots of students quite time consuming, because of course there's some of those seminars and events and sausage sizzles would be things that they'd like to go to and would have gone to anyway, but some of them, they'll only be there to get the free food and they may have to queue for a long time or they may have to sit through a long discussion that doesn't relate to their interests. It must be time-consuming, it must take time away from other things that they're trying to do, does it?

Claire:

Yeah, definitely. And some people described having to queue up an hour before something starts in order to get the food, like for example, the sausage sizzles. And some described, just not having the time for that, and so just not having lunch because on particular days they needed to go to the library or something and they didn't have time to go and queue up like that.

Craig Jeffrey:

So if they're missing lunch, they would just have nothing?

Claire:

Yeah. In some cases, yes. And in some cases it was not, as I'm so sure you've spoken about previously with some of the other researches, it's obviously not conducive to health. It's not conducive to mental health or to concentration or to studying, but some students mentioned missing lunches if they didn't have time to make it to the free things and to spend that time lining up or attending an event to get lunch.

Craig Jeffrey:

Yeah. I'm going to be talking to one of your other co-researchers Ashrina about the general question about what needs to be done or what could be done, and not suggesting that there are already lots of things that the university and other organizations are trying to do as we've seen during COVID, but I wonder from your perspective, just to put you on the spot for a moment, if there's one thing that you think that is important in terms of next step, is there anything that sort of stands out for you?

Claire:

There are quite a few things. And one thing, I mean, obviously like we've mentioned things can continue like food parcels and packages and things like that. I had a student actually telling me a really interesting story about her experiences with food that is about to expire and how in other cities, not in Melbourne, but in other cities that's often made available for people. And that student was actually mentioning why is this not available potentially to students? Another thing which I found quite interesting that has come out of COVID really is that a lot of students talked about an increase in time for food preparation and being able to think about food and make food at home, but at the same time, not necessarily having the skills or the knowledge and quite a few students were asking about cooking classes and things like that, that can happen through the university and local organizations that help to empower students with their own food.

Craig Jeffrey:

Right. It's been so interesting listening to you, Claire really appreciate you taking time out. I know you've got a heavy workload today and thank you both for the research that you've been doing on this. And I know you've been drawing not just on your own experience, but a lot of interviews with your peers on this topic, but also thank you for coming for the podcast today and talking so openly and clearly about the issue and about how students are trying to deal with this problem of food insecurity on campus. So thanks very much.

Claire:

Thank you.

Craig Jeffrey:

Well, that was another really very interesting interview with Claire. I think there's a lot to take out of that. I mean, the key point for me was the one around the hustle. This sort of sense of students having to devote time on campus to trying to navigate sausage sizzles, going to lectures or events just to try and get the free food. And it really made me reflect on the situation that some students are in on campus. And of course, one doesn't want to exaggerate this problem, but also one doesn't want to minimize it. And I think that what Claire's saying, coming out of her interviews with other people and her own experiences, it's a really powerful story. And it gives a real insight into some of the struggles that students are facing on campus.

Craig Jeffrey:

So in the last interview with Ashrini, I'm going to segue into actually thinking in a more concerted way about something that I've been talking to Helena and Claire about in brief, which is the question of what more could be done? Which isn't to say that there wasn't a lot being done already, but actually asking in a bit more detail about what ideas she might have, what ideas other students have had that she's interviewed about what the University of Melbourne in particular could do to try to address this issue. Welcome Ashrini to this podcast. I'm really delighted that you could join us.

Ashrini:

Thank you so much for having me here today.

Craig Jeffrey:

Sure. And I've already spoken to Ann, Claire and Helena and had lots of interesting perspectives on the whole issue of food insecurity. I really wanted to talk to you about the question of what has to happen to try to address this? And I think this is something that I know from having spoken to you before, you're really interested in and you're really keen on this question of what next, what should happen. And I'm just wants to get your impressions. And I guess I'm interested both in what you yourself feel as someone who's experienced food insecurity as a Masters student on campus. And also you've done nine or 10 interviews with other students. You've heard other people's perspectives. This was one of the questions you were asking other students. What interesting ideas have cropped up when you've been talking to other students about this issue?

Ashrini:

This is a really timely question, Craig. And I feel like going forward as we sort of get back and transition into going back to campus, this will be something that will become really significant. And I personally think that for any kind of change to happen, I feel like the university in this instance, or I guess the most significant stakeholders, have a lot of wiggle room to make that change happen. So in that sense, I do think that there are little initiatives that the university can take, which don't really require any big overhaul or any big change as such structurally. So having spoken to and interviewed over 10 students, we all feel like it kind of starts with the small changes. So the overwhelming sort of response was a sort of shift in attitude where the university sort of accepts responsibility that this is a problem, A, and B, that change whether tangible or intangible, even small changes can contribute to increasing food security among students on campus. So acknowledging it and recognizing it is where it starts. And that's what a lot of students said.

And in terms of the initiatives and the suggestions that students have made. Quite a few students had really innovative ideas that they put forward. For example, one is, a few students suggested some kind of meal subsidy program where the university could offset around half of the cost, 40% to 50% of the cost of food on campus, and easily promoted online for the markets and for the vendors at uni to sell that food in a way that also attracts more students.

Craig Jeffrey:

Well, that's very interesting. So that'd be a bit like the market that happens anywhere in the university, right?

Ashrini:

Exactly. Exactly. If you actually look, I don't know the official statistics, obviously, because I don't work for the university and I'm not involved there, but just as a student that's gone every Wednesday to the Wednesday market. the overwhelming response and the number of students that actually show up to buy the food, the cultural exchange that happens, it's kind of like a global city in itself through food. So that kind of marketing strategy would really help not only to push different windows and their produce and stuff like that to students, but also offsetting that subsidy will make it more affordable for students, which is what we want. Because no student is saying that they want free food all the time. Students understand that it's part of a business model and that there is profit in goal. So it's more about how can we make it more accessible, not about how can we make it completely free. So that's one.

Second would be giving out food vouchers because as we know a lot of food goes to waste. So especially in the outlet in subway at uni, for example. Maybe reducing the sandwiches at the end of the day to half price, that could be something that the university can do. Just making sure that food doesn't get wasted. So that sort of tackles food wastage in itself, and also making food really affordable for students at the end of the day. Maybe like the last three hours, they can be like a final dinner rush or something like that, where all the stuff that isn't sold, which will anyway be going into the dumpster, can just go to students that are hungry and can be made really affordable.

I think quite a few students that I interviewed mentioned that they would hit up the 711 near uni, outside the campus where the sandwich would come down from $5 to $1.50 or $2.50 by like eight in the night, because they need to get rid of it. So that's something that's very practical and very easily can be done without any major overhaul, like I mentioned. And food vouchers. So we only know that UMSU (Student Union) does quite a bit in that space, where it's by students for students. So in that what we could do is increasing the awareness about it. Because out of the 10 students that I interviewed barely two or three knew that it existed and only one student knew what the food co-op was. So for students to sort of make use of the already available services, it would be really good for the university to send out.

So all of us, we receive graduate kind of updates every week. We receive weekly updates over email about what's new on campus, what festival's happening, what lecture is going on. So if in that update itself, they could add like a food section or like just one point about, "Oh, have you checked out the new student food co-op yet where you can get this kind of stuff, hit this place up for fresh produce or for subsidised cost or free breakfast." So there are things that are happening, but students just don't know about it. And so just sending out an email alert would go a long way in terms of spreading awareness. And once awareness is there, it will be really easy to stimulate demand. And once the demand goes up, it just becomes by itself a sort of really good business model for the university as well. So that's one. And so this is something that the students really stressed on that I interviewed to raise awareness.

Second thing is the university encouraging a peer run student network where people can reach out to others. This could be in terms of getting subsidised food or getting tips, like cooking tips, recipes, things like that. So there's a range that this can cover. And the flexibility or sort of make sure that anybody that signs up to that peer run network gets what they want from it. So this is also another idea. And some students suggested...

Craig Jeffrey:

Sorry to interrupt you, but the peer run network that would be about distributing food or would it be about providing information or both of those things? I do think that's an excellent idea.

Ashrini:

Yeah, both of those. Because some students are very self-sufficient in that they know how to cook, they know exactly what they want to eat, but they just can't afford the ingredients or something like that. In which case they can get it at subsidised costs. The students who have too much of like rice for example, for the month can exchange that for something else. So things like that would be really practical. And at the same time, students suggested the university conducts free workshops on like, for example, life skills and English and stuff like that. So if the university could also conduct a couple of free workshops on cooking skills and for example, taking three ingredients and teaching you eight meals that you can make from the same three ingredients, so helping you meal prep. So things like that, ideally practical things that would help students.

Craig Jeffrey:

And I'll just come in for a moment because I'm just thinking in the moment as you're speaking, and what you're saying is absolutely fascinating, but I'm wondering now is there a risk here if you are creating a lot of new schemes and programs and activities for students who are facing food insecurity, whether it's vouchers or peer networks, and then you create that opportunity but those students are kind of then marked out as the students who are facing food insecurity. So there's a risk of it creating a kind of embarrassment or them actually being treated like almost a different community on campus.

Now, the reason I mentioned that is at the back of my mind is still this idea that I've spoken to you before about, could you actually have a university canteen that isn't run on a for-profit basis and that all students use, whether they're experienced food insecurity or actually pretty wealthy, but just think the food on this canteen is really good and it's a place to hang out and meet friends. That might actually be something where everybody met, whereas what you're discussing the risk, I guess, and again, I'm just sort of thinking my way through it and maybe you sort of put my mind at ease on this. But the risk might be that actually that other sphere of kind of what happens for students who are experiencing food insecurity creates or reinforces divisions. What do you think about that?

Ashrini:

I think that's the only risk when we're talking about risks, but I feel like that can be offset in a number of ways. Because when I raised this question to the students that we're very keen on these kinds of initiatives coming through, they said that I would rather deal with being identified as food insecure, but still getting the help and assistance from the university to help me become food secure rather than... It's not about pride or what other people think for these students. That's one. And number two, if we take any kind of issue, for example, the uni has a number of days dedicated to mental health, right? And awareness about mental health and anxiety and all of those things. There's Are You Okay Day, where students signed up. So that risk of being found out for the lack of a better term exists in all kinds of issues that students are facing nowadays.

So I think that the only way that we can overcome this, the healthiest way to overcome it is to give it more attention and normalize it so that the stigma reduces. So when you do that with a combined effort of giving them tangible sort of assistance in terms of food vouchers and things like that, and also conducting sessions, like teaching you how to make food, how to better improve your relationship to food, because quite a few students are starving themselves and they're stressed out and things like that. So it's kind of like a combined effort, which has impacts in a more larger impact. So it's not just about food security, it's about mental health. It's about your physical wellbeing. It's about all of these things. So that kind of coordinated effort goes a long way. And it's a very wholesome way to address this issue. Because as we've seen from the findings of the research, it's not just one area, that's a problem. It's all these interconnected things, which sort of make that impact profound when you address it.

Craig Jeffrey:

It's so interconnected. And I don't want to put words into your mouth Ashrini, but it seems to me that one of the big findings here is that actually addressing this problem means educating everyone about food security. So the university administration, the university teachers, everyone on campus, other students, need to understand that this is a serious issue affecting large proportion of the student population. And we need to really be prioritizing it as something to address.

Ashrini:

Exactly. And this was the major takeaway that even I had not just as a student, but also as one of the people that sort of assisted in the research and the interviews, the thing is students don't actually discuss this when you're hanging out with your friends at lunch, "Oh, can you afford food?" It's just not something that comes up. So when you have events like this, it sort of gives students the outlet to express. It gives them that push that they need, because they're not going to... It's going to warrant a lot to just have to suddenly sit down with their friends and out of nowhere, be like, "Guys, I couldn't offer food today." So if there's a space where students feel safe enough to work through that and then get help from other friends and students that are going through the same thing, I think that's where the university can step in. And I don't think that that requires a big budget in itself. I think it's a more attitude shift that we're talking about.

And finally, just to sum up a couple of more interesting points that some students suggested was basically understanding that extensive student discounts are not the only way that the university can help. So one of the students mentioned that the university could exercise more control over the pricing of food on campus. For example, maybe a rule that each outlet should have at least one $5 dish every day. Where you just pay $5 and you can get a nice lunch or like one dish, which fills you up, which is not that much to ask. More microwaves and spaces to sit and eat that's one.

And finally, the most interesting one that stood out to me was, one of the students that I interviewed was talking about how during lockdown, just outside the university campus, there's the Sikh community, like the Indian community, making a lot of food and sort of giving it to uni students, especially. And in response, some of the uni students like some Chinese students and some students from Korea, South Korea, brought their own food. And there was like this international food exchange with no money involved or very affordable price, like $2 or something like that. So he said that if the university just provides the South lawn, or like space, all the university would have to do is that logistics of space, and students could come together and there could be an international exchange of food which is very possible, I think, and would be a really good idea to make friends, get exposed to that cultural exchange, and also ensure that students have access to food. So I think that these sort of initiatives are really good.

And to end, I guess in conclusion, one of the students talked about how, like you said, university canteens and subsidised food on campus is a reality in so many countries. So there is no reason why the university can't come up with a strategy or a business model to make sure that that can become a reality for us as well. And given the fact that we're investing in this new student precinct, it obviously shows that the university has the interest of students in their mind and that they want to make the experience better. But at the same time, we want to make sure that it's not this luxury experience in itself.

It has to be affordable. It has to be sustainable. And it has to be inclusive because students come here from different countries, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, some are wealthy, some are not so wealthy. So if the new student precinct can have at least one outlet where you can get subsidised food, then that would be really helpful, is what the students concluded with. I think that most of these initiatives are simple, easy, practical, and very easily can be adapted into the current climate and the current policies of the university. So that's what we were talking about.

Craig Jeffrey:

It's been really interesting listening to your Ashrini. It's been an extraordinary amount of material ideas packed into a short conversation. So I know that you've taken time out of your working day to come and talk to me today and I'll let you get back to that. But I wanted to thank you for giving us an insight into just the passion with which students are thinking about this issue, but also the number of really interesting ideas that are coming out of your conversations with students. And I can bet that if you're finding this, then these conversations are going on elsewhere as well. So just actually collating more of these kinds of ideas is going to be important in what is an ongoing effort of universities in lots of different places to address this issue. So thanks so much and good luck in your Master's degree and thanks for chatting today.

Ashrini:

Thank you so much Craig and I hope that the key findings of this research do start to see this conversation of food insecurity and that we can come up with constructive solutions to help students in the future. Thank you.

Craig Jeffrey:

Well, that was a fantastic set of interviews from the four co-researchers and I've certainly learned a lot. I've been hearing along the way, various comments and points that the co-researchers have been making in relation to their interviews. But it's not until this podcast and talking to the students on these issues that some of the importance of the topic and the pressing necessity to do something about this has really come home to me. So I hope you found it interesting listening. I hope it's given you a sense of the problem. I would be really interested in hearing from you, if you have any ideas or responses to this podcast because I know, Gyorgy, Jane and Charlene who were also on the project would equally be very interested in any reactions that you might have. We will probably be publishing from this and talking about it in other contexts. We'll certainly be talking to the university about our findings. Thank you for listening to the podcast. It is a one-off, but who knows, we may follow up with further podcasts in the future on this topic. So thanks very much.

Finally, I'd like to thank all of the interviewees who participated in this project and gave up their time to talk about food insecurity on campus. It's really appreciated. Thanks.

University of Melbourne Staff

Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis [School of Agriculture and Food]

Associate Professor Jane Dyson [School of Geography]

Professor Craig Jeffrey [School of Geography]

Charlene Edwards [Melbourne Social Equity Institute]

Student Co-researchers

Rafaela Anja
Louisa Ellis
Aasha Sriram
Mia Zentari

Summary Report

A  report produced in June 2021 including suggested strategies to address food insecurity at the University of Melbourne.

Download: Download the Summary Report (PDF)

Articles

‘I miss fruit’: uni students hustling on campus for food,  Campus Review,  17  March 2021.

‘God, I miss fruit!’ 40% of students at Australian universities may be going without food’, The Conversation, 16 March 2021.

‘Food for Thought’, Pursuit, 16 March 2021.

Radio

Interview with student researchers Rafaela Anja and Mia Zentari on SYN FM's current affairs program Panorama,  22  March 2021.

Events

Faculty of Arts webinar featuring student researchers Aasha Sriram and Mia Zentari,  4 May 2021.

For information about this project, please contact:

Louisa Ellis
Research Assistant
Melbourne Social Equity Institute
Email: louisa.ellis@unimelb.edu.au