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.
Since the democratic transition, South Africa has come a long way in paving a path that enables citizens to take advantage of education. Within universities, certain overlooked socio-economic and food security factors affect academic performance. The prevalence of food insecurity and factors affecting academic performance was investigated in the context of underperforming first year students. A mixed methodology was used where questionnaire, focus group discussions and key informant interviews were used to collect in depth information. The individual dietary diversity score (IDDS) and household food insecurity access scale (HFIAS) were used to assess the severity of food insecurity. Fifty-three per cent of students came from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds characterised by unemployed parents and a high dependency on government grants. Twenty per cent of students regularly send remittances home, diverted from their scholarships/ bursaries and study loans thus leaving little for students to survive on. HFIAS results showed majority of students were food insecure as 80% experienced anxiety about food availability and accessibility and 54% had periods of complete inaccessibility to food. The majority of students proved to lack skills in grocery listing and financial management skills. Affordability and storage facility challenges led to students consuming nutritionally poor foods which compromised their health status. The IDDS showed 92% of students consumed bread, rice and maize; 70% ate foods with high levels of sugar, 71% ate foods made with oil, fat or butter; 66% ate meat; 58% ate vegetables, 50% ate fruits. This showed students’ diet is lacking in diversity as they resort to rich, energy-dense and cheap foods found at cheap prices. This robbed students of essential nutrients. Students who lived in university-owned residences were at higher risk of food insecurity. A significant proportion of study participants had substandard secondary school education. The shift in the Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) created challenges evident in lack of classroom engagement and lack of efficiency in communicating answers in tests and exams. Student accommodation and its proximity to learning facilities also affected performance negatively. The study therefore recommends, among other things, that university-owned residences reintroduce and/or subsidize dining halls to increase food accessibility, availability, quality, quantity and dietary diversity challenges. Food coupons could be introduced to low socio-economic students to purchase food from supporting grocery stores. Mandatory attendance of first year students to specialized programs organized by faculties and Student Counseling Centre to improve preparedness of students is needed. The UKZN LoLT policy needs to be implemented effectively so that the performance of second and third language speakers is improved. Translated material and academics who can speak the main local language is encouraged. The use code-switching techniques for the benefit of second and third language speakers are also encouraged when academics can use the main language.
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