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Broke UK Students Are Relying on Food Banks Run by Other Students

Staff members at Manchester Central Food Bank have noticed a developing trend of students feeding students with food donated by students.
February 4, 2015, 10:40pm

All images courtesy of Manchester Central Food Bank

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Anyone who's been to university will know that, as the end of the term approaches, money runs dry. You tell yourself it'll be fine, that you can survive off another week of packet noodles, economy cans of beans, and no booze. You comfort yourself by counting down the days until your next loan installment comes in. But what if you run out of noodles and beans? What if you're so hungry and so poor that you end up having to rely on a local food bank?

This has become a common reality for students in Manchester, home to two of the largest universities in the UK. People were incandescent with the news of tripled tuition fees, but student food poverty is a crisis that's already happening. As someone who works in a food bank, I'm seeing it every day.

Victoria from the University of Manchester's Students Union's Advice Service (SUAS) says the situation is rapidly deteriorating. "It's been brushed under the carpet and just doesn't seem topical," she says. "We give students budgeting advice but it's difficult when the figures just don't add up. The loan covers accommodation but very little else. It's hard to make your finances stretch that far."

Maintenance loans for living costs of up to $8,370 are offered to students in the UK, which gives you about $160 a week to live off. The numbers don't look bad from the surface. But with average rents running at around $530 a month in Manchester, before bills and food are taken into account, it's not a liveable amount.

Breaking down the budget, it becomes apparent—if not explicitly—that someone, or something, is expected to fill this financial void in student's expenses. "I struggled at the beginning with accommodation, but getting a part time job helped," says Nicole, a first year neuroscience student at Manchester University.

"The problems come with the patterns of the loan," says Laura, a fourth year medical student. "Towards the end of term it gets pretty tight. I didn't realize how much of a strain it would be on my parents to support my brother, my sister, and I."

For students who can't find the cash, whose parents can't help, they face the prospect of visiting an increasingly ubiquitous British institution: the food bank.

Students unloading food bank donations

"It started last year, around about March time," says Victoria, "but demand has increased in 2015." Why? "A variety of reasons," she sighs. "There's those whose finance has been delayed, the international students with no access to benefits, and those on tough courses without any spare time to get part time jobs." She says the student bursary is "good," but "not enough to live off."

At the student-run Manchester Central Food Bank—one of the largest in the UK—staff members like me are noticing this worrying trend of students feeding students with food donated by students. It'd be ironic if it wasn't so depressing. Since the beginning of the year, roughly 21 emergency food vouchers have been received by the food bank from students across Manchester. While this is a small portion of the overall volume of users at the food bank, it's a demographic that hasn't been seen before.

Father Tim, one of the priests at the chaplaincy that houses Manchester Central Food Bank, noticed the trend firsthand. "We realized that there were a lot of people, especially students, who were given vouchers but were too embarrassed to come in," he says. "I approached the student's advice center and told them that they could contact me by phone and access us out of hours. Even at 9 PM, I'd still let them in. Some come through the back because, even late at night, they don't want to be seen."

Food bank volunteers

Ronan is a volunteer at the food bank who feels passionately about this developing situation. "Yes, students have always been traditionally 'skint'," he says, "but the failure to protect them from rocketing rent, food prices, and energy bills has resulted in the future professionals of this country living in poverty. We're regressing as a society, we're going back in time. We have the means to eradicate poverty, so why haven't we?"

Ronan's anger is shared by Rebecca, another regular volunteer. "I think it's a combination of higher tuition fees and a rise in living cost, which has meant more students are forced to turn to food banks for urgent support. It goes to show that the economic crisis has had an impact on all levels of society, from students to pensioners."

The fact that students are being forced to eat food donated to a food bank by other students is bleak as hell, but it's also heartening that so many kids want to see change happen and are actually coming to help out. In our first operational year, we have fed just over 2,000 people.

Still, a student-run food bank that increasingly becomes a haven for destitute young people is not a longterm solution to a complex problem. It might be a lifeline now, but what happens if people stop being able to donate? When I asked Victoria how she'd begin to solve the problem, her silence spoke volumes. Until then, we'll carry on handing out boxes of Cornflakes and packets of rice to those who need it.