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uk university student
Photography Jonathan Borba

UK university students now can’t afford to eat

A recent NUS survey found that one in ten students are using food banks, while a third are living off credit cards

Students have not had an easy time in recent years. COVID not only disrupted teaching, but also barred students from the usual rites of passage: from getting blind drunk during Freshers week to celebrating graduations surrounded by friends and family. Now, although nightclubs and student unions have opened their doors once more, many students are more concerned with getting by, as disposable income dwindles during the cost of living crisis.

A recent NUS survey found that a third of students are living on less than £50 a month after paying their rent and bills, and many have reported that their maintenance funds are not enough to pay for a weekly food shop or cover their energy bills. Harrowingly, 92 per cent say the crisis is affecting their mental health, with 31 per cent saying rising costs are having a “major” impact on their wellbeing.

Research published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), also suggests that there is evidence of “hidden homelessness” among students who are forced to sofa surf just to keep a roof over their heads. Another recent survey by the National Union of Students in Scotland reported that 12 per cent of students had experienced homelessness since starting university.

According to the NUS, more than one in ten students are also using food banks. Amy, 22, a student at Manchester Metropolitan University, tells me she began using a food bank last winter after her mental health issues worsened and she was unable to work. “I get a student loan, but my parents don’t support my choice of going to university, so I struggled to support myself over the winter,” she tells me.

“Being unable to buy necessities or enjoy life in the slightest was an awful feeling,” she continues. “I’ve also struggled with an eating disorder in the past, so it was very triggering to not have any food to eat.”

Eilidh, 26, is a final-year medical student at Newcastle University. Like Amy, she’s also struggled to afford food. “There have been times where I’ve been at the checkout at Asda and had to hold stuff back because I’ve not had enough money to pay for it all,” she says. “Or if I go to the library for a whole day I try to just have one meal.” She’s recently begun paying for her food shopping on a credit card, racking up thousands of pounds of debt.

Food insecurity has obvious health risks. “Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition, obesity, and a host of other related problems,” Ian Byrne, Labour MP and leader of the Right to Food campaign, wrote in Tribune earlier this year. In light of this, it’s almost laughable that the government is concentrating its efforts on putting calories on menus as part of its public health policy, when millions are already experiencing negative health outcomes as a result of food poverty.

There’s a clear link between food and mental wellbeing too: the Trussell Trust found that 38 per cent of food bank users reported poor mental health. “Less measurable, but no less important, is the effect had on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time in our polarised world of foodbanks beside investment banks,” Byrne writes. For students like Amy and Eilidh, this is only exacerbated by the ongoing mental health crisis which has compounded in recent years as a result of the pandemic.

“I struggled to support myself over the winter. Being unable to buy necessities or enjoy life in the slightest was an awful feeling” – Amy, 22

Eilidh explains that consistently eating meals with low nutritional value – such as pesto pasta – left her feeling incredibly low. “When you can’t afford fresh fruit and veg it starts to impact your mental health and your fitness,” she says, adding that she feels depressed. “There have been times where I’ve been sat there starving in the staff room in a hospital and lied and said I’m on a diet when people ask why I’m not eating. Other times I’ve just gone for a walk during lunch so I don’t have to sit and watch other people eat.”

With limited options, Amy reached out to The Wella project run by St. Peter’s House Chaplaincy to support the local community in Manchester. Initially, she felt embarrassed to reach out for help. “There’s definitely a stigma surrounding using food banks. I felt like a failure to be honest,” she says. “But there’s no shame in reaching out for help when you need it.”

Amy’s worries were soon quelled. “They were so helpful and even funded my travel to them to pick up my food packages as I couldn’t afford to travel anywhere,” she says. “I was really struggling with my mental health at the time and they definitely helped me holistically too — they also provided a recipe book along with the food which helped with my motivation and sense of routine.”

“There’s definitely a stigma surrounding using food banks. I felt like a failure to be honest [...] But there’s no shame in reaching out for help when you need it” – Amy

Food banks do such important work, as Amy’s story shows – but it’s still harrowing to think that they’re necessary in 2022 in a country with the sixth-largest economy in the world. While the government was happy to fritter away billions on the shambolic test and trace system, only a fifth of students say they have received any financial support from the government, and only eight per cent said they felt ministers are doing enough to support them.

“The amount of students that actually struggle putting food on the table is very surprising,” Amy says. “It’s disgusting to see how the Tory government have belittled food banks’ work in the past, when it’s truly lifesaving and so important. Tories are so far removed from society that they can’t comprehend how necessary food banks are. With the cost of living going up so much I dread to think how bad some students are going to get it this winter, especially with the gas and electric crisis.”

Things are particularly difficult for medical students. In their first four years of study, undergraduate medics can access student loans as normal, with a maximum loan of £12,382. But in their final two years, medical students are offered an NHS bursary of up to £3,191 – effectively slashing their income by 75 per cent. Eilidh adds that she did have a job during her first four years of university, but the requirement to do placements takes up so much of her time and energy that it would be impossible to do a part-time job on the side.

“This is absolutely inexcusable,” Eilidh says. “This government is not only making medical students poor, but destitute.”

The right-wing in the UK may be seemingly allergic to the thought of people living their lives without suffering, but things could very easily be different. With 70 per cent of the country made up of farmland and 3.6 million tonnes of food waste generated each year, there’s more than enough to go round. Food poverty has always been a political choice – now, we just need the Tories to choose to end it.