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Food banks seeing “influx” of international students as costs spiral

“Suddenly the cost of living goes up and our queues have gone higher than ever,” said Elyas Ismail, founder and chief operating officer of Newham Community Project, which last year made headlines for supporting over 1,000 international students who were struggling to afford food during the pandemic.

Some 11% of students in the UK are accessing food banks, up from 5% in January 2022. Photo: Unsplash.

The NUS warned earlier this month that 11% of all students in the UK are accessing food banks

Now, the London food bank says it has once again seen a spike in demand, with the number of users, the majority of whom are international students, tripling since the beginning of this year.

The UK’s National Union of Students warned earlier this month that 11% of all students in the UK are accessing food banks, up from 5% in January 2022. 

Unable to claim state benefits and limited to working a maximum of 20 hours per week, international students are particularly vulnerable to rising costs – leaving them with no other choice than to turn to food banks.

“It’s kind of worrying,” said Magdalene Enearu, founder of Najra Helping Hands food bank in Glasgow, which has also seen an increase in the number of international students using it since the beginning of the year.

“Some of them are too scared to get support, thinking they might be penalised by the Home Office because of it”

Enearu said that many of the students she had met were concerned about asking their universities for help. 

“Some of them are scared because it says on their passport ‘no recourse to public funds’. Some of them are too scared to get public funds or get support from their university, thinking they might be penalised by the Home Office because of it.” 

The majority of those using Newham food bank are from India, and nearly all are from South Asia according to Ismail, while Enearu said a significant proportion of those using her food bank were Nigerian. 

Both the Indian rupee and the Nigerian naira have fallen significantly against the US dollar in recent weeks, compounding the impact of rising costs on international students.  

Newham Community Project has also seen an increase in the number of students accessing its mental health services and seeking support for domestic violence – issues that can be exacerbated by financial stress. 

An NUS spokesperson said that the cost of living crisis is “reaching a spike for international students.”

“For too long, universities have recruited internationally, knowing that they can fill up their bank accounts with high fees – but forgotten the students behind them. This has to change,” the spokesperson said.

“We need meaningful support from the government for all students on the cost of living, and we need it now.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Greater Vancouver food bank has experienced, in its own words, an “influx” of international students over the past six months as the cost of living has spiralled in what is already one of the most expensive cities in North America. 

“We’ve seen some pretty extreme situations… where there were literally students fainting and dumpster diving, trying to find food in the international student community,” said Cynthia Boulter, COO at GVFB. 

The University of British Columbia’s student union (AMS) reported in July that food bank usage among all students had increased seven times over in 2022 compared to 2019, and is calling on the provincial government to freeze rent to help students cope with increasing costs. 

A demographic survey by the food bank indicated that the majority of its users were international students.

Mitchell Prost, student services manager at AMS, said, “these folks are facing increased tuition and also the burden of rising unaffordability… the cost of their living is so much higher if you do a direct comparison to the cost of living of domestic students.”

The Canadian Federation of Students told The PIE that it is aware of growing numbers of international students turning to food banks and had contacted universities to ask them to “make sure that there are affordable food options on campuses”. 

Boulter said the most important thing universities can do is provide ongoing funding, either by supporting food banks or by subsiding food. 

“You see the posts about the new engineering department or the new building or ‘the rose garden looks lovely this time of year’ – yeah but, your students are hungry,” said Boulter. 

“These are students who paid money to get here”

“These are students who paid money to get here. I think there’s maybe a conception that they’re all wealthy and some may be but many are not, and it’s taken everything they can do to get here.”

In the UK, Ismail said Newham Community Project had tried to engage with universities about the issues facing international students but the response had been minimal. 

“The universities want their money,” Ismail said. “They want them to come over. But once they’re here, who’s giving them support?” 

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