Exploring the Usefulness of Bulk Buying Groups among University Students

By Dr Natalie Mansvelt - November 2022

According to the 2021 SA Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE) report, 26% of Nelson Mandela University’s first year students and 35% of senior students stated that they have insufficient money to buy food. When students’ challenges related to accessing food were unpacked by a group of students, it became clear that many students go through cycles of having food and not having food. For many students, the beginning of the academic year is a time where they lack access to food or resources to buy food. This could be due to no funding, delayed funding or administrative challenges with pay-outs. To assist students, food parcels and various other relief efforts are offered by individuals, departments or faculties.

If funding becomes available after a few weeks or months, students have access to money to buy food. Yet the money does not always last until the next pay-out. Reasons, inter alia, include:

  • Funding insufficient to satisfy nutritional needs
  • Remittances sent home to support family
  • Lack of knowledge or experience with financial and budgeting skills
  • Lack of knowledge or experience with cooking skills

Students could then end up in need of relief efforts to acquire food.

The cycle indicates that to address students’ food related challenges, requires more than relief efforts. What is required is a comprehensive approach with multiple strategies that could address the complex issue. One such strategy that is currently explored is bulk buying groups.

According to the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training (CIPSET) of Nelson Mandela University, community bulk buying groups can be likened to stokvels. Group members would contribute equal amounts at the beginning of a month whereafter large quantities of food can be bought at wholesalers. Large quantities are bought at lower prices than individual units, therefore more can be bought with less money.

While bulk buying groups would not provide relief for students who don’t have access to food and does not address the problems of food-related challenges at its roots, it has the potential to assist students whose food budget does not last for the month or until the next pay-out.

During the second semester of this year, a group of social work students started the groundwork to explore students’ views and interest in bulk buying groups. A pilot project is planned for 2023 to experiment with the idea and determine whether it could be an attractive and feasible strategy at our institution.

Learnings and reflections from the initial explorations with students, showed that:

1. The idea of bulk buying groups would have to be tailormade for and by students. Some students associate groups like stokvels with older people and rather prefer their own contemporary version of groups where students belong and which they can own.

2. Trust building would be essential. Due to the lockdowns and online learning of the past two years as well some students’ previous negative experiences with peers regarding the sharing of money and other resources, cohesion needs to be developed among students who would participate in bulk buying groups. Finances is a sensitive topic and entrusting somebody with a portion of your funds, may be difficult to do.

3. Practical challenges would have to be discussed and overcome. For example, students in different funding programmes have different pay-out dates.

4. A suggestion from one group of students was to start with groups who share information about retailer specials and discounts with one another. As cohesion develops naturally, smaller groups could move to more active membership who work together.

As the process unfolds and multiple strategies to address students’ food-related challenges are tried out, the guiding focus is on a comprehensive approach that advances student well-being.

About the Author: Dr Mansvelt is a lecturer in the department of Social Development Professions at Nelson Mandela University and has been journeying with students since 2018 in unpacking student hunger. She has been an active member of the Mandela University Food Systems programme since it began in 2021, and in 2022, formed part of a small team of staff and students who co-constructed our programme’s student hunger subgroup. Under Dr Mansvelt’s leadership, the subgroup is currently looking at designing and implementing approaches to address student hunger that are student-centred, sustainable and humanizing.

Posted on 24 March 2023 15:34:19

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