Student advocacy on food insecurity echoes across Canada

Reports of students not being able to afford food are echoing on university campuses across the country. Student advocates say that while initiatives designed to help them fight food insecurity do exist, they are often fighting alone. 

Research shows that the prevalence of food insecurity is higher among Canadian postsecondary students than in the general population, partially due to income-related factors such as age, job prospects and marital status.

At UBC, rates of food insecurity are three to four times higher than the provincial average. The AMS Food Bank recorded a 600-visit spike in visits earlier this year. 40 per cent of undergraduate students and 50 per cent of graduate students said they were worried about running out of food at least once in the past 12 months in the 2022 AMS Academic Experience survey, which garnered 1071 responses.

These trends are mirrored by reports of national food bank usage being the highest in Canadian history and seven million Canadians saying they went hungry at least once between 2020 to 2022. 

Food insecurity disproportionately affects BIPOC, 2SLGBTQIA+ and international students. Research also shows that being food-insecure has a significant adverse effect on psychological health and academic performance. 

Students have started to mobilize on the issue. At UBC, a walkout in October gathered hundreds of students to demand increased food security funding.

What exactly is causing so many students at universities to go hungry, and what are their schools doing about it? 

'Economically speaking, it’s hard to live and be alive right now'

At Dalhousie University, the pandemic turned food insecurity from a somewhat manageable problem to an “overwhelming” one, according to Sydney Keramo, VP academic and external of the Dalhousie Student Union. 

The student-run food bank switched to an appointment-based system in order to meet the spike in demand, but Keramo said the situation is still the worst she has seen in her four years as a student. 

Even as the economy transitions to a post-COVID reality, the problem of job insecurity has persisted, particularly for young people. Former President of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), Helen Sofia Pahou, said that there has not been a return to a pre-pandemic economy.

“Everyone is struggling to make an income [and] get a job,” Pahou said. “Economically speaking, it’s hard to live and be alive right now.” 

Inflation has made other costs like housing more unaffordable for students across the country, leaving them to make hard financial choices. Three out of five students in the 2022 AMS Academic Experience survey said high housing costs stoked their food insecurity. 

In Halifax, where there is a rent vacancy rate of one per cent and an inflation rate above the national average, Keramo said that students “just don’t have the money for food” because they are having to grapple with other costs. 

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk is a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Toronto who has been researching food insecurity in Canada for over 30 years. She sees food insecurity as a problem rooted in flawed public policy and also one that has been “festering for a long time.” 

“Most social assistance programs aren’t indexed to inflation. So the poorest people in any province are effectively getting poorer as prices rise and their incomes don’t,” said Tarasuk.

“It’s inevitable that we would have this large swath of people who are food-insecure because they are in circumstances where they can’t be anything else.” 

Tuition and seclusion 

While economic drivers of food insecurity remain consistent between the student and the general population, there are factors that create additional vulnerabilities for students. 

One of these is rising tuition. UBC students have routinely opposed annual tuition increases and often cite them as a primary source of financial stress. 

The increases this year were justified as necessary to combat inflationary price increases, and passed despite a tuition freeze protest interrupting the Board of Governors meeting where the vote took place.

The University of Alberta faced backlash after the province approved its proposed tuition increases ranging from 16 to 71 per cent for a dozen programs earlier this year. The university's Provost Steven Dew told CBC these increases would go toward "improving program quality."

Abner Monteiro, president of the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union (UASU), said the UASU has made these increases a focal point in talks with the university and local government about food insecurity. 

Another dimension of the problem is geography. Many universities are situated in secluded regions far away from urban centres, where one might find more abundant and affordable options for groceries or food. 

SFU, for instance, is located on a mountain which is a commute away from most Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods. Eshana Baran, the VP External & Community Affairs at SFSS, said that this makes it difficult for students to access food when they are on campus. 

“Students don’t have time to go up and down the mountain,” Baran said. “We have one grocery store on campus, and it’s very expensive.” 

Students at Dalhousie University face similar barriers when it comes to accessing grocery stores, most of which are located off-campus and can only be reached by crossing a bridge into Dartmouth, said Keramo. 

“Our university is kind of a food desert, you have to go pretty far to get to food, but that’s not easy for most students,” Keramo said. 

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Dana Turdy said in a statement to The Ubyssey that while UBC has on-campus grocery stores and restaurants, they are often not affordable to students and staff. Turdy said this is why it has been crucial to supplement these outlets with at-cost grocery programs like the Food Hub Market as well as low-cost food co-ops like Agora Cafe and Sprouts. 

Tarasuk said that university students remain a group that is more likely to come from higher-income backgrounds compared to the general population, but some students — such as those with insufficient support from family, who moved here from another country, or who are learning to budget — face added barriers. 

“Are [they] somebody from a middle- or lower-income family who really doesn't have enough money to go to university and it's killing them to try to stay in school? I think we need to [look at] who it is on campus that’s struggling.” 

Students say they are fighting alone 

Student unions across the country have made efforts to contain the spread and severity of food insecurity on their campuses. But those leading the initiatives say institutional support is lacking. 

At UBC, students spearheaded efforts to increase funding for food security initiatives, including a walkout in October organized by Sprouts, a student-run food co-op, that gathered hundreds of students.

Prior to the walkout, UBC approved a one-time allocation of $500,000 toward food security programs across both campuses. However, student organizers said they still want to see more proactive and long-term commitments. 

“The additional $500,000 allocated this year would not have happened without tireless student advocacy, which is not an acceptable model for ongoing funding decisions,” Sprouts co-presidents wrote in an email to UBC’s Interim President, Dr. Deborah Buszard. 

Buszard's response pointed to the additional one-time funding, and said UBC is "currently exploring long-term funding to provide ongoing, stable support for food security-related needs."

At SFU, Baran said that while there are programs offered at SFU like the free community fridge program, the student society has limited resources compared to the university, and its leaders want the administration to step up its efforts. 

“This advocacy cannot only be put on students,” Baran said. “One fridge will not cut it for 27,000 undergraduate students.”  

According to SFU's website, its Student Affordability Committee — a partnership between SFU and student advocates — has prioritized food security as a key issue.

Within the SFSS Pahou added that despite ongoing conversations with the SFU administration about food insecurity, it’s students themselves who have put in the most time and effort into making a dent in the problem instead of the institution.

“Conversation is one thing, action is another,” Pahou said. “We can only hope that this signals a greater need for the university to step up.”  

At the University of Alberta, Montiero said that food insecurity is an “entrenched intersectional problem” that has required advocacy on several fronts. In addition to fundraising for its food bank, the student union is also lobbying for municipal and provincial governments to tackle the affordability crisis. 

Dalhousie University has helped fundraise for on-campus food banks, but Keramo echoed that upping support to food banks is only solving the “symptom of a much greater problem.” 

“A student doesn’t just have to eat, they have to get to campus and be engaged, and universities need to recognize that.”