It’s Thursday, market day for the French student solidarity association (ASEF) volunteers. Every week the association organises a market to supply food to students. The principle is simple: it costs just one euro to take part and you have to bring along an empty bag to carry provisions. Around 200 students leave each week with a bag full of goodies that would cost over twenty euros (£18) in the supermarket.
Monthly saving of 80 euros
In the morning, a team go to the Nantes Foodbank (where goods unfit for sale that have not yet reached their expiry date are taken by supermarkets everyday) to load a trolley full of goods. The products are then taken to the association’s premises in the basement of a CROUS (French student welfare organisation) student residence. It is here that the markets take place. Ten minutes before 5pm when the market opens, the volunteers busy themselves in the basement, arranging the yoghurts, piling up the cartons of milk and setting out the crates of fruit on the tables. Outside, around 40 students wait patiently. There are several reasons why these students keep coming back to the market. For some of them student loans are insufficient whilst for others there is no funding available at all. Some return every Thursday without fail, whereas others come from time to time.
At the front of the queue is Amandine, a 22-year-old French student studying for a masters in science. She's talking to Nawel, a female Algerian student. For the two young women, the ASEF markets are a real support. Amandine has to manage on 460 euros (£405) of student loan each month, not much more. She first found out about the markets through the university’s student welfare assistant at the beginning of the academic year and is now a regular. Each month she saves 80 euros (£70) on food. Amandine also benefits from a partnership between the association and the student welfare assistants. The ASEF markets are open to all students, regardless of their financial backgrounds. However, students who are severely suffering financially can bring a document supplied by the welfare assistant in order to get supplementary goods from the market.
Falling on hard times
Many foreign students such as Yaen and Elisabeth from Peru or Yuchen from China come to the ASEF markets. When family or governmental financial support is limited, eating well sometimes becomes difficult. As well as offering foodstuffs, the weekly markets are an opportunity to meet other students and share experiences, making life in France much easier to adjustment to.
Richard, 34, has come to Nantes to finish his odontology training before returning to Abidjan to teach. Without a student loan he only has 400 euros (£352) to live on each month thanks to his warden job at the student halls of residence. He receives 130 euros (£115) a month from the CAF (the French housing benefit agency), but that doesn’t allow him to eat well. Thanks to ASEF Richard, the big eater among his group of friends, is now able to eat as much as he needs. Varlene, 24, also from the Ivory Coast, is here for an accountancy training programme in Brittany. The student loans he receives from the Ivory Coast government have not been transferred and the savings that he came to France with are running out. It’s all a question of pride. He would rather not ask for help from the association, but today he has told himself that the goal is not to eat healthily, but just to eat. That evening, he came back to the ASEF market three times and now finds the food aid offered by the association to be extremely valuable.
More demand, more volunteers
More and more students are now attending the markets. According to Cecile, treasurer of the association, on average 200 students come to the markets, except around exam times or holiday periods when numbers decrease. Over the five years that she has been involved with the organisation, the sociology student the number of students attending increasing. The increase in numbers shows the growing popularity of the association on the Nantes university campus as well as the deterioration in conditions of student life. Young graduates find it hard enough getting their first job, let alone a part-time job. Parents affected by the aftershocks of the economic and financial crisis are no longer in a position to support their children. At the same time, student loans stay fixed at the same amount, whilst prices in university restaurants and the cost of rent in university accommodation continue to increase.
The market’s clients are unanimous in thanking the association. The ASEF has been a model for other towns and universities to follow. However there is a worry amongst association volunteers who are not sure if they will be able to continue their work next year, as the premises will be under construction and the university has not yet offered an alternative. For the moment the markets will continue. As Cecile highlighted, the key to the association’s success is the participation of its volunteers, a rewarding activity that does not take up much time.
Images: main and in-text: courtesy of ASEF association