#ProjectWinter: From Food Banks To Eating Leftovers: How Nottingham Students Survive Food Insecurity

Sophie Robinson

As food prices soar and student loans stagnate, many students simply cannot afford to eat.  

“Food is the easiest thing to cut out”, says James, a University of Nottingham student. 

Students at the University of Nottingham have been forced to find alternative ways to access food during the cost-of-living crisis – including using food banks, eating leftovers, and in some cases skipping meals entirely. Sophie Robinson speaks to students at the University of Nottingham about how they’ve struggled to afford food. 

James had already been stocking his cupboards with packages from food banks once a month. 

But now they have become a regular stop on his way to and from campus over the winter.  

Each time he goes into the food bank, he is overwhelmed with guilt for taking food that others may need more than him. 

Nevertheless, he has to eat somehow.  

Students highlighted rising food prices as the main reason for their increasing living costs

Instead of picking up items such as pasta or rice which need to be cooked, he sifts through the packages to find food items which will keep his energy bills low.  

Money problems are always in the back of his mind.  

According to a report on the cost-of-living crisis by the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, students highlighted rising food prices as the main reason for their increasing living costs.  

In the Winter survey, 33.4% of University of Nottingham students reported that they were spending less on food and essentials, and across all surveys a minority of students reported using food banks.  

As a mature student, James does not receive a maintenance loan to subsidise his living costs, and is self-funding his masters. This has made food insecurity a huge problem in his life. 

At 40 years old, he is working two jobs while studying for his MA in English Studies. 

He describes being a mature student as difficult, because he cannot phone home for financial support in the way that younger students might be able to.  

James says that other mature students at the University of Nottingham are using dangerous methods to manage rising food costs while juggling parenthood, such as eating leftover food from campus cafes or not eating for days on end, increasing their risk of illness.  

One in 10 surveyed students said they had used a food bank in the past year

From what he’s heard from his peers, mature students who are parents are often left “starving” because they prioritise feeding their children.  

He says: “For a lot of people, it’s making them sick. There’s a mature student on another course who hadn’t eaten for four days because they were feeding their child.”  

James also recalls another mature student eating a leftover pizza from the top of a bin because they could not afford lunch on campus.  

A Student Cost-of-Living Report created by the National Union of Students (NUS) in September 2022 identified that mature students are one of the demographics more likely to use food banks, and that students who are parents are more likely to report extreme financial concern.  

Dan McDonald-Smith, the University of Nottingham’s Mature Students’ Officer, explained that this is because mature students often have limited time and finances, as well as having dependents such as children, significant others and elderly relatives. 

Dan McDonald-Smith, the University of Nottingham’s SU Mature Students’ Officer 

He says: “Mature students tend to be silent when it comes to their needs because they don’t have the time to speak out when they’re struggling to put food on the table for their family”. 

Dan also emphasises that mature students are already more likely to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and so the cost-of-living crisis only exacerbates their money problems. 

However, food bank usage is not limited to mature students, as the Student Money Survey from 2022 found that one in 10 surveyed students said they had used a food bank in the past year, with 47% admitting that “money worries” had impacted their diet.  

Third year English student Priya explains how her mental health has impacted her ability to access food. 

Some days when she is feeling down she struggles to leave the house, let alone get to the supermarket. As a result, she likes to plan her meals in advance and buy non-perishable foods.  

She says: “I like to buy things that don’t involve a lot of preparation time, such as noodles, but they cost so much more now. It’s definitely made me reconsider what I’m going to eat on those days when I don’t feel so well”.  

Priya worries that because food prices are rising, those who struggle to access supermarkets due to mental health problems will suffer more than they ever have.  

Students are expected to pay £5 for each brunch meal on top of their accommodation costs

According to the NUS survey, 92% of surveyed students said that the cost-of-living crisis was affecting their mental health, with 31% noticing a major impact. One of the catalysts for this was noted as a lack of proper eating.  

Although the university has pledged to support students through the cost-of-living crisis, some decisions made by university executives are potentially making mental health problems worse for students.  

This academic year, catered halls on University Park campus stopped providing first year students with brunch at weekends – meals which used to be included in the accommodation fees.  

Now, students are expected to pay £5 for each brunch meal on top of their accommodation costs – which many cannot afford.  

When asked for a comment from the University, they said: “the University is working hard to shield students from significant price rises during the current cost-of-living crisis.” 

“We liaised with the Students’ Union to make some minor changes, and removed brunch from meal plans as this was least used by students.”

“This ensures we can still offer five breakfasts and seven dinners in the meal plan, together with the £25 Daily Bites allocation to spend throughout the week, which remains competitive compared to other Russell Group universities.”

Daisy Forster, the University of Nottingham’s Community Officer, says that this decision was made because the university wants to cut down costs. She explains that rising food costs is a big financial worry for the university and the Students’ Union currently.

Daisy Forster, the University of Nottingham’s SU Community Officer

Daisy, however, would not have made this decision herself, saying: “It’s a shame – personally I don’t think you can sell people catered accommodation and then not give them any food at the weekend.” 

Imogen, a first year catered student living in Cripps Hall, explained how this change has affected her in terms of accessing nutritious meals.  

“Sometimes I just wait until the evening meal to eat”

She explained that while catered accommodation brunches are not healthy, some vegetables and carbohydrates were provided. 

Now, she spends her Saturdays and Sundays living off free fruit, cheap snacks from the shop on campus, and even crisps from the hall’s vending machine.  

Vending machine in Cripps Hall used to substitute meals by first year students

She finds the cost of lunches from other campus cafes “extortionate” and incompatible with her tight budget.  

She says: “I just can’t afford to pay for the weekend brunch on top of the £8000 accommodation fees – it means I’m not eating proper meals. Sometimes I just wait until the evening meal to eat.” 

Imogen has noticed her energy levels and motivation to study are decreasing due to scarcer meals, and is aware that other students in catered halls feel the same way. She worries that this unhealthy diet will impact her health and academic work in the long run. 

In response to growing pressures on students and the university, the University of Nottingham Students’ Union set up a free breakfast club on campus for any student to attend.  

This club is run by students for students, and offers an array of breakfast items, such as toast, cereal and tea, at no cost. The food items are typically sourced from the Spar in the Portland Building, and are funded by the Students’ Union. 

UoNSU Oasis free breakfast club held in the Portland Building on University Park campus

Daisy explains that this service is popular among students, however she doubts that it’s because students cannot afford food.  

Rather, she believes that the club has become a social hub for students. 

She says: “For a lot of students, the first thing that they cut out is socialising, so they’re more inclined to stay in and isolate.” 

This will […] relieve the burden of sourcing food for themselves and their families

The breakfast club means that students from all different backgrounds can come together to study and socialise while fuelling up before their lectures. 

Similarly, the Mature Students’ Officer Dan is in the process of setting up cupboards around University Park campus to help students out financially. 

They will act as drop-off and pick-up points for students to access foodstuff and hygiene products free of charge.  

So far, there has been one placed in the School of Health Sciences, and some more are being built in the Medical School and School of Engineering.  

Dan hopes this will help to destigmatise mature students’ experience of accessing help, and relieve the burden of sourcing food for themselves and their families.  

James says that although this is a good idea, there will still be a stigma around being seen picking up products from the cupboard. He says: “There is no perfect answer, but this is at least something”. 

He asserts that anything the Students’ Union or university can do to help students access food will be essential to surviving the cost-of-living crisis. 

These services help students like James to feel confident that they will be able to get their next meal.  

What the Nottingham universities have to say….

A spokesperson from the University of Nottingham said: “The University of Nottingham has increased its Student Hardship Fund by 50% to £750,000 to provide grants and interest free loans to any student who is experiencing financial difficulties, as well as providing access to cheaper food options on campus, free kitchens, shower facilities, heated study spaces and period products. Students can find out more about the University’s support for them at https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/studentservices/money/cost-of-living.aspx

“The University is also working hard to shield students from significant price rises during the current cost-of-living crisis and has absorbed all cost increases for University accommodation this year rather than pass them onto students. We have also fixed 2023/24 increases in accommodation charges to 5% – the same level as last year – at a time when inflation was running at more than 12%.

“We are continuing to lobby the government for further support for students through our roles in Universities UK and the Russell Group. Together, universities can be a powerful lobby and we are collectively calling on government to: provide targeted hardship funding for UK students; reinstate maintenance grants for those most in need; ensure that support for students is protected against inflation; increase financial support for postgraduate researchers; and ensuring that any government action to support people with rising costs, such as energy, can be accessed by students across the UK, including those in halls.”

A Nottingham Trent University spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact that the increases in the cost of living can have on our students and we work in partnership with our students’ union to understand the kind of support needed. We provide a range of advice and guidance around managing money whilst studying and information about deals, perks and discounts.

“We regularly promote all that we offer to ensure that students know how we can help them. We have increased our hardship funds, have frozen prices at all our catering outlets and provide free fruit on campus. We have also targeted support for those most in need, such as bursaries or food parcels. We are also funding the costs of graduation gowns for all of our final year students.

“We’ll continue to listen to our students to ensure that we are doing all that we can to support them in the most appropriate way.”

To read more about what our Project Winter investigations revealed, click here

Sophie Robinson

Featured image courtesy of Sophie Robinson. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.

In-article images 1 and 2 courtesy of UoN SU Officers, Dan McDonald-Smith and Daisy Forster. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to these images.

In-article images 3 and 4 courtesy of Sophie Robinson. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to these images. 

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