It’s Friday, not quite ten o’clock on a wet and windy spring morning. The University car park is busy with traffic for a drive-through Covid jag. A younger queue is gathering outside Maggie’s, the Students’ Union café, for a different boost to healthy survival.
They wait, in a well-spaced line, with shopping bags. Hair and scarves blowing in a strong south-westerly. You can’t see smiles – they are wearing masks – but the body language looks cheerful.
Inside the warm building, three young women work quickly and quietly, setting up shop as trolley loads of food are wheeled in from a small car parked beyond the vaccination tents. Tables are piled with tins, packets, eggs and boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Ten o’clock. Time to open the doors. Students enter two by two, socially distanced but for most of them this is a rare social event. A chance to see and chat with different people as they log in at one door and leave by another, paying £1 for their bags of groceries with a contactless tap on the way out.
Welcome to the weekly QMU Food Pantry, proudly run by students for students at Queen Margaret University on the windy coastal outskirts of Edinburgh. Brace yourselves for good news. This is a ‘can-do’ story of enterprise, ingenuity, and kindness. Though, of course, this being 2021 there is a familiar theme – how Covid has exposed the faultlines of our society. Barely covered cracks. Who knew so many university students would be going hungry?
To eat or pay the bills?
It’s no surprise to Elouise Rice. (That’s her at the log-in table by the door). The third year undergraduate studying dietetics – how nutrition affects health – knows only too well that students often have to choose between eating and paying bills.
“Students were vulnerable already,” she says, “Covid has just amplified the needs,” When Covid struck, lockdown put paid to the part-time jobs many students need to carry them through university. “Thousands of students lost their jobs. We had to act quickly.”
She did. As universities across Scotland and the rest of the UK went into quarantine, Elouise sought help from fellow students to provide an innovative alternative to food banks. In late October 2020 the first QMU food pantry opened in a tent on the campus and the line of customers has grown steadily since then.
The community enterprise is run with the essential support of the Students’ Union, willing volunteers, and the Cyrenians FareShare programme which enables students to join the community enterprise by paying an initial £2 membership fee. After that the weekly shop costs £1. There are now 179 members and around 40-50 shoppers arriving at Maggie’s every Friday.
“It’s very much a joint effort, a great example of ingenuity and creativity”, says Sue O’Neill–Berest, the Cyrenians Food Education Manager, who selects and brings the weekly delivery of FareShare ‘surplus food’. She has just wheeled in the last load from the boot of her car.
Lessons in food insecurity
If Covid exposed inherent problems in university fees and student support systems, it also revealed unexpected opportunities. As so often, success depends on personal relationships. Last summer, unable to earn money, Elouise began volunteering with the Cyrenian’s Food Production service at their community kitchen in Leith. Already concerned about the impact of food poverty on students, she was interested to discover how the Cyrenian’s new community food pantries aimed to avoid the stigma of food banks. “Students are often embarrassed to use food banks in case they are depriving people with more need.”
Lockdown has exacerbated the financial hardship facing many students. In Scotland, tuition is free for Scottish and (before Brexit) EU students, but fees for undergraduates from the rest of the UK are £9,500 while international students may pay from £13,000 to £50,000. Fee-paying students are entitled to a maintenance loan of £1,000. But, with student accommodation costing around £120 a week, before gas and electricity bills, that doesn’t stretch far.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Elouise explains later. As one of the many QMU students from Northern Ireland she pays fees with a student loan, “I have parents who can support me through uni, and are able to pay my rent.” Without that support she doubts she would be at university at all. Ironically, she has friends from the Irish republic who don’t pay fees but are therefore not eligible for the maintenance loan.
A duty of care
“Food insecurity is not just about famine in distant countries”, says Sue O’Neill-Berest, who also happens to be a post-graduate student at QMU, studying part-time for her MSc – researching food insecurity among students. “It’s about having to make choices, do I eat today or pay the rent? It means skipping meals when you haven’t got enough money to go round.”
At Sue’s suggestion, before my visit to the food pantry, I caught up with the Channel 4 special feature on the plight of international students in London: thousands paying for the privilege of British higher education are isolated in cramped accommodation, studying online and dependent on food banks.
“It’s shocking,” she says, “Universities have a duty of care, especially to our international students. They are guests in our country.” The United Nations defines food security as access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for all people to live a healthy, active life. Sue’s research shows the UK has little awareness of food insecurity. Though recent reports suggest that 8% of people in Scotland experience food insecurity, she estimates it’s likely to be double that among students.
Back in Maggie’s café, Sue pays tribute to QMU. It’s perhaps easier for a small university – there are around 400 students on campus – to maintain close contact with its students. That made it easier to gain approval for an imaginative proposal. “This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need good, trusting relationships and clear communication.”
The result, she says with evident pleasure, is a real ‘can-do’ project. “It shows what is possible when you can think out the box.”
A social occasion
Fresh, healthy food is popular. Sometimes less familiar stuff like celeriac and plantain pops up in the FareShare order which brings an opportunity to explore new dishes. Recipes are also on display – this week includes one for chocolate and beetroot brownies.
There’s much more to the enterprise than food, as Chiara Menozzi, president of the Students’ Union, points out (that’s her behind the poster, and by the exit door, linking the payment app to the wifi system). The weekly shop is a chance to meet other people in real life. A Saturday night kitchen club enables students to learn new skills, cook and eat together. “Even the simplest things can make a big difference,” says Chiara.
“A lot of people are suffering from isolation, alone in their flats.”
For Chiara, who has a degree in theatre and film, the food pantry has a valuable role in bringing together people from different countries, with different interests and backgrounds – the sort of experience they might have had in a pre-Covid Fresher’s Week. The growing number of volunteers helping each week includes students of sociology and psychology as well as catering, nutrition and health.
What happens next?
Covid has highlighted problems which will not disappear in a post-pandemic world – students’ part-time jobs in hospitality and retail are unlikely to boom (and universities face a funding crisis). But the food pantry is a creative response which could keep growing when lockdown ends.
None of this happens by magic. It takes time, commitment and attention to detail to stock and run the food pantry: co-ordinating everyone involved, engaging on social media, filling risk assessment forms, setting up, clearing away. Around six hours a week, Elouise reckons, but she’s not complaining. She wants the QMU pantry to grow through next semester and perhaps into other universities.
“I love doing it,” she says, “It’s a great opportunity. It brings so many people together. Perhaps that’s one positive outcome from Covid.”
Featured image: Opening the weekly QMU food pantry – image courtesy Queen Margaret University Students’ Union tweet @QMUSU
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