In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, many international students were unable to return to their respective countries. Many sought support from their relatives or close friends in Australia, while others remained helpless.
The Melbourne lockdowns, the travel bans and the large numbers of casual job losses among international students urged Residential Education Coordinator and Social Engagement of the Accommodation Services, Sam Fualau, to initiate the Fresh Food Corner (FFC) at La Trobe University (LTU).
Fualau wanted to help domestic and international residents navigate the pandemic even if it was just by providing food.
“We know students and young people in highly casualised workforces who were severely impacted by COVID, so being able to respond to the urgent need to ensure they had access to food and essential items became a priority,” he tells upstart.
Seeing a continuing need, the program launched again in February of this year at the start of the university year in 2021.
Every fortnight in the Menzies backyard of the LTU Bundoora campus, residents queue up, each with a bag in their hands. Menzies College resident, Patricio Moreno tells upstart that the program has allowed him to save on essentials items like milk, vegetables and fruits.
“I get to have the essential items for the next two weeks, so, financially, it saves me heaps,” he says.
The food program also kickstarted social interactions. Strangers turn into friends and start random conversations: discussion on exams, updates on the pandemic, yesterday’s footy scores, all become talking points.
Ilan Abrahams, PhD graduate researcher in the School of Public Health at La Trobe University studies the behaviour of people that are connected through social support. He says that it is important to have regular social contact.
“Having living basic needs matter. Having a place to live and food are important to everybody but so is the feeling of being connected to friends and family,” he says.
Back in April 2020, the Victorian Government released support packages to assist students facing hardships due to COVID-19. The support package involved a contribution of $1 million to start a food voucher program called ‘Our Shout’ offered by the government and Study Melbourne.
It aimed to reach approximately 10,000 international students in Melbourne, however, in May 2020, only 5,000 students received help through the program. Despite not reaching the original goal, the City of Melbourne announced the closure of their online submissions due to “overwhelming demand”.
The support package also included financial support– the International Student Emergency Relief Fund (ISERF) amounting to $1,100 per student that had been co-contributed to Victorian universities. After two attempts (in April and August) of providing this service, many universities had to cancel their students ISERF applications due to insufficient funds.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the press conference of Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling international students to go back to their home countries.
Even before the pandemic, international students had been exposed to a plethora of challenges that come with adjusting to a new country. Now, they are facing even more.
Australian youth mental health organisation, Orygen, found that during the pandemic, remote learning became the norm and the shutdown of non-essential services resulted in loss of social contact and income.
The report stated that this potentially worsened the sense of isolation for international students, who were already far from friends and family back home and at an increased risk of experiencing poor mental health, financial stress and academic pressures.
Moreover, Abrahams says that social support helps the well-being of an individual.
“Most people feel better when they have a chance to share and sometimes the feeling of being listened helps most people,” he says.
In June 2020, the FFC was a relief to many La Trobe residents on the Bundoora campus as products flew off the shelves of grocery stores and panic buying became a problem. A survey conducted by the FFC showed that the program helped over 2,000 participants living on campus from June to November 2020.
Fualau was also able to successfully collaborate with local community groups including Red Frogs, Hope Centre, Encompass Care, Enjoy Care, Mill Park Baptist Church, Bundoora Presbyterian Church, Pinchapoo and LTU’s chaplaincy to provide free non-perishable foods and hygiene products for hundreds of students each week.
The pandemic still impacts on students’ mental health and Fualau has a strong commitment to prolong the FFC program towards the end of this year.
“As we continue to navigate through the lasting impacts of COVID, it’s important that we are actively listening to our residents needs and ideas, which overwhelmingly identifies the food program as an essential service and source of support,” he says.
This year, international students can get their groceries at the International Student Pop-Up Store.
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Photo: By Sam Fualau. This image has not been modified.
Article: Drishtee Lokee is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communication (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @DLokee