University College Cork’s Student Union has recently set up a food bank for students on their campus. This was the first establishment of a food bank on a campus in Ireland. It follows the increasing number of food banks being set up across the country in response to the increasing levels of poverty students and workers are facing from poor wages, skyrocketing rents and high cost of transport.
The food bank is run by UCC Student Union with students able to collect parcels of food from the UCCSU offices which are open on a weekly basis. The food parcels are donated by local charities. Charities like Feed Cork show that food insecurity exists both on the UCC campus and in wider Cork city. Currently up to 20 students at University College Cork are availing of food parcels on a weekly basis. UCC Student Union expects demand to increase as more students become aware of the food bank.
Speaking to RTE and EchoLive, Naoise Crowley, UCC Students’ Union Welfare Officer, went on to say that ‘financial hardship affects many students, and this is a concrete solution to provide help,’ and that ‘The need for food banks on college campuses is indicative of the rising cost of living for students.‘
The crisis of student poverty comes as living costs around the country have skyrocketed, and support for students in the form of grants and subsidies have remained flat since 2011. Increases in the cost of housing, transport and university tuition have prices out many students and leaving many more to work sometimes full-time jobs while undergoing their undergraduate degree. Tuition fees sit at an all time high of ranging between €3000 and €7574 with many universities now adopting a levy on all students to pay for extracurricular activities, which is a flat flee all most pay includes those on the lowest SUSI income brackets.
The setting up of the UCCSU food bank comes right after UCC’s decision to raise its student accommodation rates by 11.5% in anticipation of student accommodation about to fall under the rent controls in most Irish cities. UCC Students’ Union points out that the rising cost of housing is the largest financial burden for students. In Cork, the cost of renting rose to 7.9% last year. The cheapest on-campus accommodation sits at €5860 per term. For private renters, this price can be as much as €520 a month in Cork City centre for a room. Similarly, high rental costs can be seen in Dublin where a room can easily hit €700 a month in the city centre. A particularly egregious example of high rents is the rise of purpose-built private student accommodation. These housing complexes are marketed to international students at prices ranging from €800-€1200 euro per month.
UCC Student Union sees the core issue as one of inadequate government funding. The pause in increases in SUSI since the recession has reduced the ability of low income students to afford college and forcing many to choose between basic necessities like forgoing one meal a day to afford the monthly rent. “Student poverty and financial hardship is a massively underestimated issue in Irish universities, with approximately 36% of students in Ireland experiencing ‘severe financial problems’,” Naoise says. The decision not to raise the minimum wage will disproportionately hurt students, as many work entry level roles in retail and food service. By not keeping their wages in line with the rising cost of living, students will be forced to work more hours to get by financially or reconsider their place in university.
Around the country, student unions, charities and students more generally are voicing their concern at increasing financial hardships that face students in their desire to complete a university level education. UCCSU, TCDSU as well as the USI have all railed against the increase in student poverty in recent years. A 2016 report from USI surveyed students from across the country only to find that 58% of students miss at least one meal per day. ‘More than a third (38.7%) of students said they go hungry to fund or stay in college while 25.4% said they go to their Students’ Union, Saint Vincent de Paul or a food bank for food.’
Similar schemes to UCC’s food bank include UCDSU offering food vouchers at its shops to students and clothes swaps to give access to students who cannot otherwise afford retail brands. In Trinity College Dublin’s Student Union there were attempts to introduce subsidised food to cope with the rising cost of living. Activist groups such as ‘Cut the Rent’ in Trinity College Dublin demand that the university should offer affordable accommodation to its students as opposed to its current for-profit model.