‘I Have No Money for Food’: Among the Young, Hunger Is Rising

PARIS – Amandine Chéreau rushed out of her cramped student apartment in the suburbs of Paris to catch a train for a one-hour ride into town. Her stomach growled with hunger, she said as she walked to a student-run grocery bank near the Bastille, where she joined a serpentine line with 500 young people waiting for leaflets.

Ms. Chéreau, 19, a college student, ran out of savings in September after the pandemic ended the babysitting and restaurant jobs she relied on. By October, she’d had one meal a day and said she’d lost 20 pounds.

“I have no money for food,” said Ms. Chéreau, whose father helps pay her tuition and rent but was unable to send after being fired from his 20-year job in August. “It’s terrifying,” she added as the students around her reached for vegetables, pasta, and milk. “And it all happens so quickly.”

As the second year of the pandemic begins, humanitarian organizations across Europe are warning of an alarming rise in food insecurity among young people after their families have experienced constant campus closures, downsizing and layoffs. A growing proportion face hunger and increasing financial and psychological stress, which exacerbates the differences for the most vulnerable population groups.

Food aid dependency is growing in Europe as hundreds of millions of people around the world face a worsening crisis in how to meet their basic food needs. As the global economy struggles to recover from the worst recession since World War II, hunger is rising.

In the United States, almost one in eight households does not have enough to eat. People in countries where there is already a lack of food are facing a major crisis. According to the United Nations World Food Program, food insecurity in developing countries is expected to almost double to 265 million people.

In France, Europe’s second largest economy, half of young adults have limited or unsafe access to food. Almost a quarter routinely skip at least one meal a day, according to the Cercle des Économistes, a French economic think tank that advises the government.

President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged a growing crisis after undergraduate and postgraduate students demonstrated in cities across France where higher education is considered a right and the state pays most of its costs. He announced a rapid relief plan that includes € 1 daily meals in university cafeterias, psychological support and a review of financial support for those facing “permanent and notable decline in family income”.

“Covid created a deep and serious social emergency that quickly got people into trouble,” said Julien Meimon, president of Linkee, a statewide food bank that has set up new services for students who cannot get enough food. “The students have become the new face of this precariousness,” he said.

Food insecurity among college students was not uncommon before the pandemic. However, the problem has worsened since European countries imposed national bans last spring to contain the coronavirus.

Aid organizations, which mainly fed refugees, the homeless and people below the poverty line, have realigned their operations to meet the growing demand among young people. At Restos du Coeur, one of France’s largest food banks with 1,900 branches, the number of young adults under 25 standing in line for meals has risen to almost 40 percent.

Over eight million people in France visited a food bank last year, compared to 5.5 million in 2019. Demand for food aid across Europe has increased by 30 percent, according to the European Food Banks Federation.

While the government subsidizes campus meals, it does not provide pantries. As the cost of nutrition becomes insurmountable for students with little or no income, university administrators have turned to relief groups to help fight hunger.

The pandemic has eliminated jobs in restaurants, tourism and other hard-hit sectors that were once easily accessible to young people. According to the National Observatory of Student Life, two-thirds lost the jobs that helped them make ends meet.

“We have to work, but we can’t find jobs,” said Iverson Rozas, 23, a linguistics student at New Sorbonne University in Paris, whose part-time job was reduced to one five evenings a week in a restaurant and left with just 50 euros that you can spend on food every month.

Updated

March 16, 2021, 7:09 p.m. ET

One last day of the week, he stood in a row that spanned three blocks of town for the Linkee Food Bank near the French National Library, with students graduating in math, physics, law, philosophy, or biology.

“A lot of people here have never visited a food bank, but now they live hand-to-mouth,” Meimon said. Many thought such places were for poor people – not them, he added. To ease the feeling of stigma, Linkee tries to create a festive atmosphere with helpful volunteers and student bands.

Layoffs within a family deepen the domino effect. In France, where the average takeaway pay is 1,750 euros per month, the government has spent hundreds of billions of euros to limit mass layoffs and prevent bankruptcies. But that didn’t protect parents from the growing number of recessions.

This was the case with Ms. Chéreau, who studied history and archeology at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in the second year and whose family contributes around 500 euros a month to her expenses.

Shortly after she lost her student jobs, her father was plunged into unemployment when the company where he spent his career collapsed. Then her mother was put on paid leave and her income cut by over 20 percent.

When Ms. Chéreau ran out of savings, she went into debt. Then her pantry ran out of food, she almost stopped eating, and quickly lost weight.

She had heard from friends about the student food banks and now, she said, they are the only way she eats. Even so, she carefully rations what she gets and drinks water to combat hunger between her daily meals.

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“It was hard at first,” Ms. Chéreau said, clutching a folder of homework she brought to work on while she stood on the food line. “But now I’m used to it.”

Mr Macron’s actions are welcome, but they can only help so much. In the northwestern city of Rennes, the € 1 dishes are so popular that they attract queues for over an hour. But some people have to take courses online and can’t wait that long. Others live too far away.

“A lot of people just go without food,” said Alan Guillemin, co-president of the student union at the University of Rennes.

The demand is so great that some enterprising students have started to address an urgent need.

Co’p1 / Solidarités Étudiantes, the grocery bank visited by Ms Chéreau, opened near the Bastille in October when six students from Paris’s Sorbonne University joined forces after more peers went hungry.

With the support of the Paris Mayor’s Office and the Red Cross, they negotiated donations from supermarkets and food companies like Danone. Now 250 volunteer students are organizing pasta, muesli, baguettes, milk, soda, vegetables and hygiene items to cater to 1,000 students a week – although the need is five times greater, said Ulysse Guttmann-Faure, law student and founder of the group. Students go online to reserve a place on the line.

“At first it took three days for these slots to fill up,” he said. “Now you are booked in three hours.”

Food banks like this one, run by volunteer students for other students, have become a rare ray of hope for thousands who have silently struggled to cope with the psychological stress of living with the pandemic.

Thomas Naves, 23, A Nanterre University scholarship student philosophy student said he felt abandoned and isolated after months of taking online classes in a tiny studio.

When his student jobs were cut, he looked for food banks that were set up on his campus twice a week. There he not only found much-needed meals, but also a way to escape loneliness and cope with his growing hardship. His parents were both sick and could barely make ends meet.

Mr. Naves sat down behind a small table in his student dormitory one afternoon to eat a microwave-cooled curry he’d gotten from the campus pantry. There was a small supply of donated pasta and canned food in his closet – enough to keep him going for a few more meals.

“Going to the food bank is the only way I can feed myself,” he said.

“But when I met other students in my situation, I realized that we all share this suffering together.”

Gaëlle Fournier contributed to the coverage.

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