The news that Leeds Beckett University has opened up a foodbank for students who have to pay up to eighty per cent of outgoings on rent is damning evidence that austerity and its destructive consequences are not over. Food banks themselves offer practical solutions to young families, pensioners and those receiving Universal Credit. The volunteers who run the City Campus food bank should be commended for their generosity and diligence, but as expressed by Beckett’s Union Affairs Officer Charlie Hinds, this is no cause for celebration.
Food bank usage has grown rapidly, with the Trussell Trust reporting an increase of seventy-three per cent over the past five years. Food banks are used by various groups of people: families with two working parents, the ‘just about managing’ category, and now students. Students have been demoted from no fees to modest fees: bursary provision has been reduced to the current system where maintenance grants are crudely doled out with the payment being simplistically the same outside of London. Starvation is presented as a cruel option when grants just about cover accommodation. Food poverty affects academic attainment, social experience and physical health which all limit disadvantaged students upon graduation.
Looking after the physical and mental health of students should be the top priority of all parties concerned, which means that wholesome meals, fresh fruit and vegetables and variety should be treated like attendance by the University. How many personal tutors or support staff proactively enquire about the diet of their students? Universities are still transitioning from the assumption that those who get in are broadly middle class and can afford the cost of living. Positively, it now seems that some universities are addressing students who have to go without. Opening up a food bank is a great practical step. However, I worry that reliance on food banks further marginalises poor students from important socialising heavily associated with lunches and dinners that many universities push.
Universities provide specialised education to all, ranging from international students to first-generation to low income. Many have support staff to help facilitate equality of opportunity. I would argue that universities should be more concerned with affordable on-campus food that is accessible and nutritious, albeit basic, rather than whatever faddish, costly food store they put in place. The Union has a right to make a profit for its investment but it must provide affordable options that don’t exploit the lack of convenience and competition on campus.
ToastLovesCoffee in Harehills is a local establishment that the various universities in Leeds could and should follow the example of: using otherwise wasted supermarket ingredients with no prices on the menu, it makes food accessible for those on various incomes by employing a ‘pay as you can’ method. I believe that a better partial solution would be for the University to adopt this system in a few establishments as an experiment that could benefit those who could pay for their lunch but not at that price.
The University has the chance to champion dignity and inclusivity and make campus food available for all catered and non-catered if it can remember that food is a human right.
Image Credit: University of Leeds