Food Insecurity among Students
Ms Mbalenhle Gwacela graduated with a Masters degree in Food Security after completing her thesis titled: “Exploring Food Insecurity and Socio-Economic Factors Affecting Academic Performance: A Case Study of First Year Students on Probation and At-risk of Academic Exclusion”.
The research presented in Gwacela’s thesis brought to light important issues surrounding the effect of food insecurity on the success of students in their academic studies.
Dr Unathi Kolanisi, a co-supervisor of Gwacela’s research, said: ‘These issues pose a silent threat to students’ academic performance as well as to the possibility of their advancement to postgraduate studies - often it’s not the student’s intelligence that is lacking but their access to resources as well as their skill in managing such limited resources. It’s something that is happening right under our noses, so we need to recognise the problem and address it.’
Dr Joyce Chitja of the Food Security Discipline in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) also supervised Gwacela’s thesis, focusing on the socio-economic elements of the study. The students who participated in the study were sampled from students at risk of exclusion from University due to poor results and those on probation who Chitja had encountered during her time as the Dean’s assistant.
‘Many students are first-generation students whose families have never sent a child to university before and these students therefore need to learn new social skills in order to navigate a new environment. Their environment has changed considerably but for many, their backgrounds follow them into university; their schooling is still what it was and they don’t necessarily have better resources than before.’
Kolanisi, who lectures in Food Security, supervised the food access and utilisation aspect of Gwacela’s project. She said limited resources lead to students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds not following a balanced diet and therefore struggling to perform academically.
‘Gwacela’s research revealed that 80% of the students sampled for the study were worried about where their next meal would be coming from while 50% of them are actually food insecure,’ said Kolanisi.
Gwacela, whose background is in Policy Development, entered the postgraduate Food Security programme because of its inter-disciplinary nature which provides opportunities to enter a number of fields in both the public and private sectors. She is the first in her family to achieve a masters degree, demonstrating her belief that any goal can be achieved despite one’s circumstances and background.
‘The challenge of ensuring a food secure state is part of South Africa’s growth and development agenda. With this qualification, I hope to elicit change in UKZN by partnering and supporting initiatives that address student food insecurity,’ said Gwacela.
Gwacela is currently co-ordinating the Academic Monitoring and Support Program within the College of Humanities Teaching & Learning Unit, working with students who are academically challenged due to a myriad of socio-economic factors, including food inaccessibility.
She said her study enabled her to get a clearer understanding of the types of students enrolled at UKZN, and the possible reasons contributing towards underperformance. She found that these food security issues also caused serious secondary issues. ‘For some female students, prostitution is the only resolution for a source of income, which then increases the risk of HIV transmission and other complications,’ said Gwacela.
Gwacela is passionate about development and inspired when she sees positive change in people’s lives. She believes that when people are food secure and their physiological needs are taken care of, their growth and development is ensured.
She found it challenging to be involved in a study where she could not easily implement the changes revealed to be necessary by her research; changes she felt strongly about.
‘But there is always hope that someone will read your dissertation, and take it a step further.’
Gwacela presented her research at the 11th international South African Association of Family Ecology and Consumer Science) gathering in Pretoria last year as well as at various Teaching and Learning conferences.
As a result of her work, a PhD student in the Food Security Discipline will be doing follow-up research on the issue of food insecurity among students to ensure that Gwacela’s findings are implemented.
- Christine Cuénod