20 July, 2024


Food Insecurity Prompting University Students Protests

By Shashika Lakshan

Shashika Lakshan

What is Food Security

Interactions between humans is the core of human mankind and when humans engage above interactions they interfere with some limitations and they always seek for security and stability. Human security was an important theme in the international context in the 1990s. It contains mainly seven components and food security is a main component among them, (World Food Summit, 1996.)  states that “Food security is defined when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

According to the Word Bank Group there are four dimensions that should be secured to gain food security. They are;

1. Physical availability of food – The food supply chain should function properly and there should be enough food stocks for consumption,

2. Economic and physical access to food (affordability) – there should be affordability among customers to buy goods and services.

3. Food utilisation – this ensures the healthiness of food and there should be enough  nutritious food for daily intake.

4. Stability of the above three dimensions

Food insecurity is one of the major prevailing issues which lead to numerous severe problems. When examining the main root causes of food insecurity climate change, pandemics, fragility and conflicts. Food insecurity can be seen in the Sri Lankan context as there are the remains of particular root causes.

In contemporary Sri Lanka, protests are not a new thing and university undergraduates take the initiative of those. According to the statements of university students and their union leaders, financial difficulties, increasing food insecurity and  lack of quality education are major causes for protests. They continuously demand an increase in the value of “Mahapola Scholarship” as it is not enough at least to cover food expenses. Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Trust Fund is an educational trust fund which operated by the Sri Lankan government since 1981. More than 60% of government university students obtain this scholarship (64% in 2018) and currently they get Rs.5000.

For future stability in a developing nation like Sri Lanka, availability of a healthy young generation is a must and university students have to play a major role in that generation. Under these circumstances, it is really important to examine the food insecurity issues among university students.

Contemporary situation with relevant data

It is imperative to mention that data and researches conducted on food security are not adequate when comparing with the international context. However, there are some notable research studies conducted by prominent researchers. W.M. Deepika Priyadarshani has conducted a survey and a study about the health and nutrition among private university students in Colombo. The researcher gathered data from a sample which contained 103 students and there are few main assumptions of the relevant study by W.M. Deepika Priyadarshani. The majority of the subjects were females (60.2%) and 66.7% of the subjects resided outside their family homes.The results revealed that 73.1% of the subjects had no access to healthy foods in their respective university premises, while more than half (61.3%) were not satisfied with the foods they consumed. University students have a negative perception about the quality of food items in university canteens. But in government universities, the situation is much worse than this.

For more reliability and validity of data, the author conducted a further survey and certain facts were revealed through the survey. The sample was a random sample and responses were recorded through a google form. 40% of respondents were female and 60% of respondents were male. Examining the age of respondents, the majority were between  22y-26y and most of them are third year undergraduates.

During the protests, university student union leaders take increasing the amount of ‘Mahapola scholarship’ as one of their prime demands. They forcibly convey to the government and relevant authorities that increasing Mahapola is a must. According to the survey 61.5% respondents are beneficiaries of Mahapola and they get Rs.5000 monthly. But according to the university students the living cost is high and the amount of Mahapola should be increased. According to the respondents, average daily expenses for an undergraduate vary between 300-1000 rupees and the cost differs from one to another and depends on the needs. Basically the majority of expenses go to food expenses. According to the analysis of the survey, 82% of undergraduates are not satisfied with their current food availability and affordability. On the other hand they questioned the quality of food, especially in university canteens.

At least an undergraduate needs 10000 rupees to manage his expenses in a minimum for a  one month. From the perspectives of undergraduates their arrogations or requests are reasonable. But the issue is organising protests which is the method that they follow to achieve their demands. Do protests give sustainable answers to ongoing issues ? Just 14% of undergraduates expressed their opinion by agreeing that protests gave good results. Other 86% respondents expressed ideas that are negative towards protesting. According to the students both food insecurity and protests impact negatively on their academic excellence. On the other hand, food insecurity directly impacts the health of the undergraduates. During the protests, Police use tear gases and water canons to control and those affect negatively towards health as well,

There is a lack of food security as well as financial instability among the university undergraduates. Their requests and demands to topple these difficulties but the majority agrees that protesting does not give the expected results. Thereafter, a problem emerges.  What is the best way to mitigate the lack of food insecurity at university among undergraduates?

Respondents gave some solutions and recommendations by themselves to solve this lack of food security. Some of those recommendations and solutions are impossible to implement practically like “giving free food”. But there are some good ideas which give good results if they are implemented.

1. Community Partnerships: Collaborate with local banks, stores, and restaurants to provide discounted or donated food items to students.

2. During university studies, university students can earn money by having temporary jobs or any work activities that provide them with some income but that should be done without any disturbances to the academics.

3. Meal Voucher Programs, Subsidised Meal Plans.

4. Safety should be evaluated frequently

Most of the members who participated in the survey are from the University of Colombo. According to further inquiries, the Faculty of Arts in the University of Colombo which is the faculty with the highest capacity of students has conducted some vital projects to mitigate the lack of food security among their undergraduates.

1. Giving meal tokens to identified low-income students

With the donations of Non-Governmental Organizations, the faculty administration was able to give some meal tokens to selected undergraduates and they could buy food with a reduced price with that token.

2.Introducing the “Suposhi” program.

This program was introduced with the collaboration of the “Sarvodaya” movement. With a token, most undergraduates were able to get a glass of fresh milk daily and that was a positive in terms of food security. Because of the financial difficulties, there is an issue with the continuance of this programme.

Because of these two projects, there is an improvement of food security among the undergraduates.

Options to solve the issue

According to the analysis, there is a lack of food security among university undergraduates for sure. Financial difficulties are the major obstacle to creating food security in the society as well as among the university students. But more than 85% of university undergraduates believe that protesting does not give a proper and sustainable answer for the issue and doing protests is just a remedy. Most of the undergraduates seek for a long lasting solution. Relevant local authorities should impose proper implementations for this by paying right attention at the right time. Here are some options which can be used.

1.Creating some part time job opportunities by universities for the undergraduates

The University of Peradeniya has already applied this option. Some of the canteens in the university premises are functioned by the undergraduates and that is an opportunity to get additional income for undergraduates.

Ex: KIOSK canteen

2. Explore sponsorships or grants

There might be some companies which give funds and help to reduce the food prices in the canteens and undergraduates can buy food for reduced prices.

Ex: University of Colombo, Faculty of Arts implemented the “Suposhi project” with the collaboration of the “Sarvodaya” movement.

3.Relevant university authorities can discuss with the suppliers.

These discussions can create some opportunities to buy food items for canteens with a reduced price as they use bulk buying methods.

4. Creating some subsidiary systems for lower-income undergraduates.

University authorities can identify lower-income students and provide food for them under a reduced price. Authorities can use a token system as University of Colombo implemented as a pilot project.

These are some hidden issues in the system that should be solved by the relevant authorities as soon as possible.

*Shashika Lakshan is an Intern (Research)at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.


“Untitled Form (Responses).” Google Docs. Accessed May 6, 2024. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1BBf4i0hGsdImsswR5Hgi5PwVuB9E9UCqgkjQH40fmUg/edit?usp=sharing.

“What is Food Security? There Are Four Dimensions.” World Bank. Last modified August 28, 2023. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/food-security-update/what-is-food-security.


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Latest comments

  • 3

    In Sri Lanka things exist merely to show that they exist, except that there are not utility value of what exists. Laws are a perfect example. Human rights is another. Democracy yet another one. When such is the context the same applies to Mahapola Scholarships. Some bright ass introduce something, take the initiative to do something, but no one can maintain or sustain it in a meaningful way. On top of that you kill the fellow too. Then blame the fellow too in someway for the tragedy. Story of our times. Story of our lives. I suspect the so called developed countries are significantly better. Given the huge student debt problem that exist even in places like America. The system is warped and geared to make profits. Well not even profits, it’s geared to make money and suggests money could compensate for anything and everything.

    • 2

      Another perfect example is intelligence services and law enforcement authorities. To whose benefit they exist is highly questionable. In Sri Lanka they seem to exist to protect Mafia families. For example the individual called Sugatth Hewapathirana and the family who are guilty of plotting to cause harm and even take lives of individuals and are known members of local mafia linked to international mafia networks is working in a government position whose salaries anfvperks enjoyed that includes a montero jeep perhaps among other things are paid by tax payers money. On top of that he is provided with police protection 24/7. The cop employed to this extent basically lives in a semi open garage 24/7, meals provided by the police department, and also does household chores, like taking the garbage out to be disposed when the garbage lorry comes, cleaning the garbage bin thereafter, and even cleaning the garage he lives in. Which democratic nation employs mafia gang members in public positions and provide them police protection round the clock? Does not the country’s intelligence service know about these. A Can’t they investigate when complaints are made with evidence? What is this country and who is in charge of these things? Who is running the show?

  • 1

    “For future stability in a developing nation like Sri Lanka, availability of a healthy young generation is a must and university students have to play a major role in that generation. “
    I don’t know what the author thinks, but, to me, Wasantha Mudalige looks quite well- fed, perhaps even overweight. Is he too demonstrating because of “food insecurity “?

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