University Students in Canada Still Struggle with Food Security

“Food insecurity directly affects academic standing in university students,” a study says

(Jessica Limoanco)

According to Meal Exchange Canada, an organization which coordinates student-focused food programs, two out of five (39 per cent) of surveyed post-secondary students experienced some degree of food insecurity in the past year.

Last March, The Runner looked into the Kwantlen Student Association’s food bank program and found that it has been seeing an increase in student need over time.

Piper Greekas is the KSA Student Services Manager and currently works with the KSA’s  food bank program. She says that she receives 10 to 15 requests for food per week, most of which are from students who use the service on a recurring basis.

The KSA foodbank works like this: Students can send a request to the food bank and Greekas and her team start packing all of the food items into bags which are then distributed and placed inside of campus lockers for students to pick up.

The process is done anonymously so that students feel safe and comfortable when asking for food. Greekas says that two food packages can last for up to two weeks.

She explains that some students who apply for the program also have dependents, like children or spouses, who rely on the packages.

Meal Exchange is a program that focuses on helping campuses around Canada with issues regarding food insecurity among post-secondary students.

“Students get involved through our national programs supporting campus kitchens, gardens and farms, food banks, food sovereignty, and food procurement,” their website reads.

Naomi Robert is a research associate and part of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at KPU. She says that the reasons behind widespread food insecurity are quite complex, but more often than not, they’re tied to poverty.

“Different communities experience food insecurity at different rates. Not all Canadians experience food security and food insecurity the same. So racialized people, Indigenous people are much more likely to experience food insecurity,” she says.

Meal Exchange’s data shows that 40 per cent of Indigenous students surveyed experience moderate food insecurity and 16.4 per cent experience severe food insecurity. About 53.2 per cent of African students surveyed experience moderate food insecurity and 22.1 percent reported experiencing severe food insecurity.

For East and Southeast Asian students, 26.7 per cent of those who were surveyed experience moderate food insecurity, and 8.1 percent experience severe food insecurity. About 30.7 per cent of White and European students who responded to the survey reported experiencing moderate food insecurity and 6.1 per cent said they experience severe food insecurity.

“Generally, food security is accepted to be the idea that people are food secure when they have access to food that is nutritious and culturally appropriate for an active and healthy lifestyle,” says Robert.

Some of the food items that can be found inside the food packages from the KSA foodbank include organic pasta, tomato sauce, instant oatmeal, organic lentil soup, organic canned beans, canned sweet peas, dried mango and cranberries, vegetable soup, vegetable ramen noodles, and canned tuna. Most of the food is purchased either from Costco or Safeway.

“I’d also like to add that the Foodbank Program is not perfect and we will take any suggestions to improve,” wrote Greekas in an email to The Runner. 

In the long run, Greekas says she would like to add more local food options to the food bank inventory.

Anne Janzen is the market manager for Farm Fresh Events for the Kwantlen St. Farmers Market. She says that the farmers market is planning on putting coupons inside of student’s food bank packages.

These coupons can be used for the Kwantlen St. Farmers Market or for the Sustainable Agriculture Program. The program sells organic produce during harvest season, so the coupons are also redeemable there.

Anne says that the Kwantlen St. Farmers Market gets its fresh produce from farmers around the lower mainland. Much of it arrives from Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Surrey, Richmond, or Maple Ridge.

According to their website, vendors at the market sell “fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants, baking, soaps, skincare, crafts, gifts, snacks, sauces, jams, jellies, and prepared foods.”

Eat Think Vote is a Canadian non-partisan campaign which aims to gather members across Canada to chat with federal candidates about food security.

Their “goal is to make sure that food is an election issue, and that the next government develops policy that encourages a food system where no one goes hungry, where food is healthy and respects the environment,” as written on their website.

Eat Think Vote’s food insecurity backgrounder report highlights that household food insecurity is highest in the North, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, “but nowhere in the country do rates fall below 12 per cent.”

Robert says that the local government has a lot of influence over planning for affordable housing, transportation, and child care, and thinks it would be interesting to see how the local government could address food security and poverty reduction as well.

Sustainability, a research journal which studies environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability published a study in 2019  titled “Everybody I Know Is Always Hungry … But

Nobody Asks Why” which explores how university students are affected by food insecurity, particularly when it comes to their mental health.

“Because many students are accessing loans and securing employment to fund their education, it appears that such funding sources do not fully protect them from experiencing food insecurity,” it reads.

Robert authored a paper with KPU Institute for Sustainable Food Systems Director Dr. Kent Mullinix about food policies and how they affect local communities. It focuses on how the local government policy supports regional food systems.

“Every municipality or every local government except Vancouver … is required [to have] an official development plan, which is sort of like a long-term planning strategy for a particular community that lays out … development goals,” says Robert.

She adds that they thought that this was a good way to look at how the local government was looking at regional food systems and to what extent are were being recognized.

Robert also worked in the non-profit sector in Quebec before moving to B.C. through the Meals on Wheels program. Through this program, she helped deliver meals to individuals who were unable to purchase or prepare their own.

According to Meal Exchange, off-campus students living alone experience 54.4 per cent food insecurity. With roommates, that number drops to 47.9 per cent. Students who have a loan, including those who primarily funded their education through bank loans, experience 55 per cent food insecurity. Students on government loans or grants experience 54.7 per cent food insecurity.

Sustainability states that, “although little is known about how food insecurity directly affects academic standing in university students, the literature suggests that students who face financial hardships find it difficult to manage their academic responsibilities and are less likely to complete their programs.”

Greekas says that she and her team did notice a huge increase in foodbank access requests at the beginning of each semester, just when new students arrive.

According to a 2019 press release from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “too many children are learning on empty stomachs. And we waste more than 11 million metric tons of food every year, worth nearly $50 billion.”

The government promises that the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council will launch a “five-year, $50 million Local Food Infrastructure Fund designed to support community-led projects that improve access to safe, healthy, and culturally diverse food.”

“To have a food bank program is more important for students who are struggling to make ends meet,” says Greekas. “If I were still a student, I would probably use the program.”