The fight to end hunger on Canadian university campuses

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Forty percent of post-secondary students in Canada are food insecure. Schools and other students find solutions.

It’s common for post-secondary students to survive on an inferior diet of ramen noodles, canned macaroni and cheese, and other affordable, cheap, hearty, and quick-to-make staple foods. After tuition, rent, and other expenses are paid, a student’s remaining budget for food may be limited or even nonexistent. Food – for some university students in Canada – is an afterthought.

This problem among post-secondary students mirrors what is happening across society. Food insecurity is positioned as one of the major health issues in Canada due to its direct association with chronic disease and poor mental health. In May 2020, Statistics Canada reported that about one in seven Canadians had inadequate access to food due to financial constraints during the pandemic, the highest number on record. And university students are more susceptible to hunger than the general population. Research from campuses across the country has found that about 40 percent of post-secondary students in Canada are food insecure.

“We constantly find that whether it’s campuses in major urban centers, in university towns, in more rural areas, the Atlantic provinces, central Canada or western Canada, there is there are fairly consistent results that make [campus food insecurity] hard to ignore, ”says Sam Laban, who develops and manages programs at the Guelph Lab, a joint initiative with the City of Guelph and the College of Social and Applied Sciences at the University of Guelph, to address the challenges facing the community. confronted.

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Universities play a much bigger role than education, says Laban. A growing body of research indicates that immediate action against food insecurity on campuses is imperative for the well-being and academic success of students. “For many [students], the university is the educator, the employer, the owner, the restaurant, the café and the kitchen, ”Laban explains. “It’s a remarkable number of points of contact.

Poor academic performance is just one of the ripple effects that many food insecure students have reportedly encountered. Studies have shown that food insecure people experience insidious effects on their mental and physical health. Severely food insecure students – a term used to describe someone who skips one or more meals a day – made up 11% of University of Guelph students, according to a 2020 report.

“It is not uncommon for students, if they have no more money, to drink water [in place of dinner] and go to bed, ”said Suman Roy, CEO of Meal Exchange, a youth-led charity that collaborates on food security initiatives with more than 40 universities and colleges across Canada. “It’s not just a health issue, it’s about education,” says Roy. “The main goal of a university is to make sure that it offers an appropriate education to students, but if [universities] do not give [students] the tools, such as nutritious foods, to do it, how [students] expected to achieve it? “

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Roy says research by Meal Exchange and college campuses has shown that international students are significantly more vulnerable than domestic students to food insecurity. Through tuition and living expenses, international students contribute approximately $ 22 billion per year to the Canadian economy, an amount close to that of the Canadian forest sector. But despite the significant positive value that international education brings to the Canadian economy, Roy says universities and governments “do the least to take care of themselves.”

“In various towns and small towns, the economy operates from September to April because [of international students], Roy said. “They come here and spend so much more money [than domestic students], and when there is a chance to help them, we say it’s not our problem.

Data also continues to indicate that marginalized students, such as students of color, students with disabilities or disadvantaged abilities, students with dependent children or families, and LGBTQ + students, are at a disproportionate risk of experiencing the food insecurity. Sara Kozicky, dietitian and food security project manager at the University of British Columbia, says research conducted on campuses reflects the great inequalities that exist within society.

(Courtesy of Loaded Ldle)

Students have long advocated for universities to tackle affordability and food insecurity, Kozicky says. The first food banks on college campuses (believed to have opened in the early 90s) and prepared meals initiatives in Canada were created by students who saw an urgent need in the community and wanted access to sustainable, local food. and ethical. “[Students] have run low-cost community meal programs, and most student associations on campuses run the food bank or pantry. Historically, on campus, it is the students who support the students, ”explains Kozicky.

Today, every university in Canada has an on-campus food bank. And with research and survey results indicating food insecurity is pernicious, campuses are taking action.

The University of British Columbia, where on-campus food insecurity rates are three to four times higher among college students than the province’s general population, has tested strong solutions, which include a campus-wide strategy to tackle food insecurity, including outlets offering low-cost meals, investments in student-led food insecurity initiatives and a proposal for a food hub on campus that would offer programs and services to improve campus food security.

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“We are in a real transition where the institution is focusing more on its roles and responsibilities and how [they can] solve these problems that have an impact on the well-being of students, ”says Kozicky.

While many schools have come up with creative programs to tackle food insecurity, it is well understood by universities and students that not much can be accomplished on campus. The solutions proposed correspond to those recommended to fight against food insecurity of the general population; the similarity indicates that policy changes at the provincial and federal levels are essential.

“There are ways to do it,” says Roy, who speaks to MPs about student food insecurity. “We just have to have the will to do it. “


Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centers Canada. Email tips and suggestions to [email protected]

This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Ending the ‘Hungry Student’. “


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