Food: environment, security and experiences of students at the University of the Free State

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Mabena, Rebecca Nokuthula
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University of the Free State
Background and motivation: The high influx of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds attending universities and their struggle with acquiring nutritious food have been cited as barriers to students' higher learning. Numerous studies show that students are food insecure compared to the overall population. Many student initiatives to curb hunger among students in South African Higher Education Institutions are under pressure owing to the increasing need for food assistance. This study aimed to explore how students experience the concept of 'feeding themselves’ within their current food environments on and off-campus and whether these experiences are associated with food insecurity. These insights may help address students' well-being, which is vital for academic success. Method: A quantitative cross-sectional study was conducted. A self-administered electronic survey was made available via Evasys in early May 2020 to all 42 282 registered students at the University of the Free State (UFS). The framework developed by Turner et al. (2018) was used to create questions related to the personal domain of the food environment that students were exposed to while studying at the UFS, which entails four separate constructs, namely accessibility, affordability, convenience and desirability of food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 10-item tool included in the questionnaire to assess students' prevalence and severity of food insecurity at the UFS during the reference period as described above. Descriptive statistics were expressed as frequencies and percentages for categorical data, and medians and interquartile ranges for numerical data. Associations were investigated by crosstabulation and chi-square, Fisher's exact and Wilcoxon rank tests as applicable. Results: A total of 1 387 participants provided consent and participated in the study. Most students (80.9%) were single, and approximately half were first-generation students (54.1%). According to institutional statistics, 68.2% of participants received National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to fund their studies. The majority of participants (79.2%) indicated receiving a stipend for food and living expenses. Overall, 8% and 17.1% of participants were classified as having high and marginal food security levels, respectively; and together, these participants were classified as food secure (25.1%). Conversely, 23.4% and 51.5% of participants were classified as having low and very low food security, respectively, and these two categories combined constituted the food insecure students (74.8%). Black, African males and first-generation students, had the highest percentages of food insecurity. Food insecurity was significantly (p<.05) associated with gender (p<.0001), race (p<.0001), relationship status (p=.001), level of study (p=.0002), campus (p<0.0001), faculty (p<.0001), and family history of graduates (p<.0001). Students who received NSFAS were significantly more likely to be food insecure than those who did not. Price, convenience and familiarity of food were identified as the most important factors in guiding food purchases, significantly more so for the most insecure students (p<.0001). Almost three-quarters of participants (70.1%) reported buying ready-to-eat food from street vendors and these students were significantly more likely to do so compared to food insecure students (p<.0001). Less than half of the participants (40.7%) ate breakfast before class. Students classified as very food insecure were least likely to eat breakfast (p<0001). The most food insecure students relied fully on public transport for shopping and indicated that food was expensive, and that shopping was very time consuming when they would rather study. Most indicated that they go shopping for groceries and ingredients only once (59.3%) or twice (18.0%) per month. A quarter (24.5%) carried their shopping home over fairly long distances on foot, while another 31.2% paid for private cabs or shuttle services. The most food-insecure participants were more likely to buy their food from street vendors and Shoprite (p<.0001). Students were reluctant to pool resources for buying and preparing meals in groups, mostly because of not being able to contribute equally. Most participants, particularly the very food insecure students, kept their groceries and produce in their bedroom cupboards and most only had access to very limited fridge and freezer space, if at all. Access to cooking facilities and utensils, as well as lack of confidence in their own cooking skills, and lack of skills to budget and plan ahead for food shopping, emerged as themes that contributed to food insecurity. Conclusion: The study showed that students face numerous obstacles to obtaining food during the academic term. Cross-tabulation of students' food security with food environment factors revealed that students with very low food security were statistically significantly (p<.05) disadvantaged on multiple counts when compared to their food secure peers. It may be driving vulnerable students further down the food insecurity continuum towards hunger by not paying attention to their campus food surroundings, which may significantly impact their physical and mental health and academic progress.
Dissertation (M.Sc. (Nutrition and Dietetics))--University of the Free State, 2021, Socio-economic backgrounds, Nutritious food, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food insecure students