In the midst of university indulgence, as the next Taste coffee is consumed or an overabundance of alcohol is left at a student party, can the reality be that St Andrews experiences food poverty?
For many students, it is easy to walk past the homeless people hunched on the floor on Market Street as they enter Tesco. It is even easier to not bear in mind the millions of UK citizens who are suffering from food poverty whilst doing the weekly shopping.
Some, of course, do take notice and do make a conscious effort to make a difference. One individual, Ruby Newsham, decided to become a part of the conversation.
Ms Newsham, a fourth year Arabic and French student, is the President of St Can-drews, an emerging society that established its roots last year. Prior to this role, Ms Newsham dedicated her time volunteering at Storehouse North-East Fife, the local foodbank.
She sat down with The Saint to discuss the initiative and increase the awareness of the student population on the issue.
Summarising the concept of St Can-drews, Ms Newsham said, “The majority of our work involves carrying bags. The foodbank is about 20 minutes walk from town. We carry the bags from all of the student halls and from various student parties that we will arrange. We contact a lot of different societies and collaborate with them and try to encourage people to take collections at those events. We then collect them the next day and deliver them to the local foodbank. If we have enough items, we’ll volunteer weekly or twice a week.”
Ms Newsham’s responsibility extended beyond this when she entered the role of President last semester. As well as the managing of the day to day functioning of the committee, she intends to fully utilise this year for the developing of the society.
She explained, “A lot of my work this year is going to be building up collaborations with other societies who are willing to help. That’s where we will see consistent, regular donations. Especially sports committees that have events like sinners every week. If we can build up very strong relations with other societies who are willing to get involved – which many have been – it will have real longevity and a real lifespan”
“It’s the reason that we are actually looking for volunteers within halls at the moment. The more hands we have, the easier the job becomes with collections.”
Speaking of the road to her involvement with St Can-drews, Ms Newsham said, “I am president of St Can-drews, so I’ve filled in the big shoes of Jamie Rodney and Poppy Russell who set it all up to get the ground running. They set it up at the beginning of last year. They committed so many hours to it and it was just the two of them, but they did a lot considering the size that they were. We are all incredibly grateful for their work.”
She continued, “Before St Can-drews came along, most students, including myself had no idea there was a foodbank here. I think people hadn’t realised how bad the situation had got. People have a tendency to view St Andrews as a very wealthy place and that isn’t the case for a lot of people living here.”
“Now we have a much bigger committee, and that means that we have much more hands-on deck. Especially towards the end of last semester when everyone was moving out, we were delivering regularly and we became one of the most consistent contributors to the foodbank, and we have no plans on slowing down on that.”
The initiative has been gradually increasing, and so with it the addressing of food poverty as a wider conversation. I asked Ms Newsham about the importance of having the conversation now and being actively involved.
She said, “I think in terms of why it’s important to get involved now, currently, is that it’s not going away any time soon. It has been getting worse and worse in the last year, according to the Trussell Trust, which is the main organisation which runs most of the foodbanks in the UK. The use of foodbanks in general has risen by 19% in the last year, which is pretty astronomical.”
“Now that there’s a society set up, there is an opportunity that you can actually get involved regularly. It’s much easier to get involved now.”
She continued, “For us, the more people who know about it, whether they help us directly or not, that’s more people who think when they go to Tesco, ‘maybe I could pick up an extra can for the collection in Tesco’. The more people who see or hear about our collection boxes in halls, on a basic level, the more items we are going to get, which is our absolute priority.”
With gratitude, Ms Newsham praised the efforts of St Can-drews volunteers and long-standing representatives of the Foodbank, whom she has worked alongside since her involvement with the society.
She said, “Our volunteers are wonderful people. I love them all. They are all the most genuine, hard-working, and enthusiastic people I have met in a long time. They care about this issue as much as I do, and I am very thankful to current volunteers, general volunteers, and future volunteers. You really do keep us running.”
“I am also thankful to Scott White, who is the manager of Storehouse and Jon Gardiner, a part-time worker there for the countless hours that they have put in to running the foodbank and making sure that things run smoothly”
“If people who want to get involved, especially if you are living in halls, the best way to get involved is via our Facebook page. It’s the most direct route.”
Interest in the cause first came to Ms Newsham when she began to engage with news coverage of the growing food poverty problem in the UK.
“I had obviously been hearing a lot about foodbanks in the news. It had become a topic that was being talked about quite regularly as of last year I would say, particularly as the problem has been growing recently.”
“I think if I can remember rightly when I first became motivated to actually do something personally was when I was watching an old speech of Mhairi Black in Parliament. She was the first politician who I’d heard talk about and condemn the hypocrisy within the government, of particularly members who would frequently praise foodbanks for their work in local communities; that can be quite frustrating to hear on the other end. To us, foodbanks are a symptom of a failing welfare system which is the government’s responsibility.”
“Hearing her so vehemently condemn that unwillingness or failure to help was the first time I realised that if I wanted to help, I was going to have to do it personally and physically in my local community.”
Although Ms Newsham has undertaken an influential role in the face of food poverty in this locality, she maintained that whilst it is a conversation for all, it is the responsibility of one body; the government.
“I think that it’s the government’s responsibility more than anyone’s. It becomes quite hard to leave that out of the conversation. The Trussell Trust said that 20% of the reasons that people gave for coming to a foodbank was because of benefit changes, which is a pretty clear indication that policies in place are affecting the use of foodbanks negatively.”
“I think it’s appalling and abhorrent that there’s any need for foodbanks anywhere within the UK. We are one of the richest countries in the world. I would much rather that St Can-drews didn’t have to exist. I would much prefer that no foodbank had to exist, but apparently they do, and the need for that is only increasing.”
She continued, “In the meantime, whilst we work to try encourage the Government to take responsibility for what they should have already taken responsibility for, I think that the responsibility falls on people within their local communities who can afford to eat and who can afford to buy some extra donations during their weekly shop.”
Ms Newsham’s commitment to the cause is testament to her sentiment of enacting change whenever and wheresoever one can. Yet, unlike some activists, Ms Newsham did not have previous personal experiences with food poverty. Instead, she reflected upon the morals she grew up with and how they have transferred over to her life in St Andrews and her activism.
“I come from a tiny Scottish village called Achiltibuie. Growing up there, I saw day-in day-out how important it is to help out your neighbours and community. There was always someone you could call on. I was very much brought up with the idea that giving back to your community is expected. Well, that to me is natural.”
“St Can-drews has really helped to reaffirm that. Within my studies, it has made me much more aware. So, I study Arabic, and at least among Arabic students we have a tendency to talk a lot about the refugee crisis and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and things like that. Doing things like St Can-drews has helped me remember the importance of putting a face to numbers and to very wide discussions that often forget about the people actually involved. And so, I think that if I was ever to go into that sort of work in the future – NGO work – this has been a fantastic reminder that I will probably carry through with me forever.”
With this encouragement, Ms Newsham not only regarded her degree in a new light, but was able to engage a wider discussion, and perhaps, more importantly, inspire action in those unaware of the issue.
She said, “What I’ve noticed with my own family members is that as I’ve got involved and had more active conversations with them about foodbanks in the UK, they now regularly donate to the collection box at Tesco. Just doing that weekly makes such a difference. It’s so important that people have this in their minds in their daily lives.”
This, of course, undoubtedly has a tremendous impact on local levels. Yet, their work transcends such a barrier and the impact can be seen on a national perspective.
Drawing on this, Ms Newsham said, “What we do at St Can-drews is local in that the items that we collect go directly to the local foodbank. Where it becomes national is that students come to this town from all over the country, and when they go back home knowing the foodbank crisis, and knowing that there will be foodbanks in their own areas, they start to spread the word to their families and friends back home. That’s where we begin contributing nationally.”
“Quite a few of the members in St Can-drews volunteered in foodbanks back home, and we’re hoping to encourage people who get involved with us or hear about us to keep the foodbanks in their communities in mind when they go back after the semester.”
Furthermore, Ms Newsham expressed her optimism of the environmental benefits that can be linked between foodbanks and the reduction of food waste
Notably, this is traced back to the end of the 2018/2019 academic year, when unconsumed food of leaving students was in abundance and donated to St Can-drews.
The remarkable thing is that each week, in what seems a university of total indulgence, you can find a team of students carrying bags full of food in order to help others.