A degree of hunger: COVID-19, food insecurity, and the higher education sector

An empty, dirty dinner plate


By Veronica White

This month, I will finish my master’s degree in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, taught in part by academics from the Centre for Rural Policy Research, including Professors Matt Lobley and Michael Winter. We never got a chance to say goodbye when campus closed in March, so I am glad to get this opportunity to work with Matt, Michael and the rest of the research team.

While there have been numerous media articles discussing food security concerns for school-aged children, I was curious about how the pandemic has affected university students. As European borders started closing in mid-March, I returned home to the Netherlands. I am very privileged to have a safe home environment, with parents who can afford to feed me and my sister (and our two boyfriends who ended up living with us during lockdown!). Sharing the cooking responsibilities between the six of us, I ate considerably better than I normally do while at university.

Other students did not have such a positive experience, as highlighted by the Food Insecurity and Lived Experience of Students (FILES) report. This research involved a survey of over 1,200 students across three universities in the UK and one in the US, throughout April 2020.

The survey found that almost 35% of students reported high or very high levels of food insecurity, with the highest levels of food insecurity reported by students who were living alone or with other students. The report also highlights the prevalence of poor mental wellbeing in students, stating that “one in five university students reported experiencing both low levels of food security and low mental wellbeing” during the COVID-19 lockdown.

With almost a quarter of students relying on employment as the primary means of funding their education, job losses associated with COVID-19 have had direct implications for students’ access to food. These finding are reflected in a separate study, which found that loss of income and changing living arrangements were the two strongest predictors of food insecurity among students at three American universities.

The findings from these studies, while alarming, are perhaps not surprising considering that food insecurity was already a prevalent issue within university students prior to the pandemic. Food insecurity has been linked to difficulties concentrating, higher rates of anxiety and lower academic achievements. And considering the racial and ethnic disparities in food security amongst students, increasing levels of food insecurity caused by COVID-19 could hinder efforts at closing the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap.

It is clear that universities welcoming students back this month must find long-term solutions to support students who are experiencing, or at risk of, food insecurity. The FILES report argues for the need to convene a special task force of national stakeholders to review the viability and efficacy of eight recommended policies. These include increasing hardship funds, lowering income thresholds for maintenance grants and establishing a campaign to reduce the stigma around food aid. I encourage university and student union staff to read the report and identify interventions that can be tailored to their student population. Additionally, more research is needed on the state of food security at universities in the UK, as most of the research has focused on students at American universities.

As a research centre based at a university with over 25,000 students, we must acknowledge that students arriving back to Exeter this month may be facing higher levels of food insecurity than pre-COVID*. With all of the uncertainty this new term brings, the last thing students need is to stress about where their next meal is going to come from.


*If you are a student at the University of Exeter with financial challenges that are affecting your studies, the university’s Success for All Fund is now open for applications.

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