How the pandemic has increased food insecurity for university students in Canada

Post-secondary students are facing higher rates of food insecurity than the general population

(Kristen Frier)

(Kristen Frier)

In addition to balancing coursework, job schedules, studying for exams, and navigating the everyday circumstances of university life, nearly 40 per cent of post-secondary students across the country are also reporting that they face the stress of food insecurity.

It has become such a well-known issue that the idea of the ‘starving student’ has become a common phrase that is often normalized, and the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of college and university students being food secure, due to the rising costs of tuition and the decrease in job opportunities. 

Post-secondary institutions like the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University saw a large portion of their student population express that they were dealing with food insecurity since the pandemic began last year, with approximately 28 per cent of students impacted at SFU and 30 to 40 per cent at UBC

Tammara Soma, a research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab at SFU, says more academic institutions should be leading by example in helping students deal with food security. 

“The reason why students are struggling with food insecurity is not because of the lack of food, it’s because they’re struggling with the cost of housing,” says Soma.

“Food is put as a last priority when it comes to choosing between housing and everything else.” 

In a 2020 study by the Campaigns, Research and Policy Department at SFU, researchers concluded that “students that live outside of their parents’ home, in rental housing alone or with friends, are more likely to be food insecure than those that live with their parents.” 

Soma describes this as a “recipe for trouble” when added to the other growing costs of living students face.

In 2016, Soma and co-director Belinda Li created the Food Systems Lab with the shared goal of co-founding a research hub that works on promoting food security solutions, methods for reducing food waste, supporting a sustainable food system, and mitigating climate change.  

When the pandemic struck last year, Soma and others at SFU realized a lot of students were unable to consistently purchase healthy and nutritious food because they lacked the income.

SFU’s Student Affordability Committee made students aware of what services are available to those who need access to food such as the food bank program, farm to campus initiative, the Burnaby Food Hub Collaborative, and more.

Soma and others on the Food Systems Lab team are working on Nourishing Innovation, a contest for students at SFU, BCIT, University of Northern British Columbia, and Vancouver Island University to develop solutions to address food security problems on campuses. 

Students submitted their ideas between May and June earlier this year, with the winning ideas being implemented on each campus at the beginning of the fall semester. 

One of the winning ideas from SFU was the proposal by the Flexi-Lunch Team, a weekly program that showcases a 30-minute cooking demonstration of a student or staff member through social media of preparing an easy, affordable, and nutritious meal. The recipe will be released prior to the demonstration, so students or staff have the opportunity to make the dish at home. 

In the same week, the program will offer a pay-what-you-can or free lunch day to students and staff of the same recipe. 

The goal of the program is to facilitate discussions about the value of food while bringing people together over a shared meal. 

“I’m really optimistic and hopeful about the Nourishing Innovation project,” says Soma. “It’s really trying to get a bunch of universities on board.” 

She says hopefully, in the future, this project will grow within SFU and think about other institutions joining like Kwantlen Polytechnic University, UBC, and Royal Roads University. 

Although finding long-term solutions to food security can be tricky, Soma says the government implementing a universal basic income and affordable housing would help students. As well as post-secondary institutions offering a subsidized food program through local farms and more affordable or free tuition.

“A lot of universities, the way that they are structured and governed … is very much tied and focused on corporations,” says Soma. 

“My hope is that there will be a time sooner rather than later, where students can go to school well-nourished, with good healthy food that’s culturally appropriate.”

As the pandemic increases students’ risk of food security, food prices in grocery stores and restaurants have increased due to supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19, labour shortages, and the climate crisis. 

The 2021 Canada Food Price Report estimates that food prices, in general, will increase by three to five per cent, which means spending an extra $695 over the next year compared to 2020. 

This is the highest predicted increase by experts according to the report.

Piper Greekas, the Kwantlen Student Association student services manager, works with the KSA’s food bank program. Greekas says ever since the pandemic began last year, she has seen an increase in students reaching out for help in accessing healthy food options. 

“We’ve been giving out almost more than double what we usually deliver to students,” she says. Greekas estimates that in February 2020 the KSA Food Bank would have 20 to 30 orders every week, but has now seen close to 100 orders per week. 

Before the pandemic, students would fill out a forum on the KSA’s website and were able to pick between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food hampers, and were eligible to get two per month each. 

To make it easier for students during the pandemic, the KSA Student Food Bank has been sending out $40 SPUD grocery gift cards instead of food baskets. The process is done anonymously so students feel more safe asking for help in accessing food. 

SPUD is an online grocery delivery service that works with local companies to bring sustainable food products right to the consumer. 

“Food affordability is insane right now with tuition and everything,” says Greekas.

“But during the pandemic, it was good for people who were immunocompromised or they lived with elderly grandparents or someone in their house who was immunocompromised. It was better to get your groceries delivered.”

Starting in mid-October, students will have the option of picking either a food hamper again or a SPUD gift card. Food items such as pasta, ramen, fruit snacks, canned soup, and more are delivered in the hampers. 

“These services are important because everyone should have access to the basic needs without money even being an issue,” says Greekas. “I just want students to know that the KSA is here to help.” 

In addition to the KSA Student Food Bank, the UBC Wellbeing Design Lab, a research facility that looks into food security for students in British Columbia, is adding two new projects to help students in need. 

Sara Kozicky, the lab’s food security project manager, says she has also seen an increase in the usage of food security programs at UBC. 

Kozicky says the pandemic has shown how fragile students’ income and stability can be. 

“Students lost access to employment, especially during the summer when it’s a really important time to build up your income for the entire year,” she says. 

Kozicky also says that it’s important to draw attention to the fact that low-income students, international, transgender and non-binary students, Black, Indigenous, and students of colour face higher risks of food insecurity. 

“This heightened risk reflects the broader inequities in society which is often related to discrimination, colonialism, and systemic racism,” Kozicky wrote in a presentation she shared with The Runner.

Although the issue is complex, she says there are ways to help students who face problems accessing nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.

From October to April next year, the lab is implementing the UBC Meal Share Program, a pilot program that will “provide students experiencing financial barriers to accessing adequate food with non-repayable funds or significant discounts to access food,” according to the program’s website.

The pilot program is meant to help the UBC Food Security Initiative find solutions to food security for students through community-sourced donations and reduce the stigma of needing help to access food.

UBC students apply through the application form on their website and is based on an honour system. 

“It doesn’t ask you to tell a sad story of why you need support, or upload your T4s and prove your income,” says Kozicky. 

“It really comes down to the wellbeing of the community. If your students, staff, faculty [are] struggling just to meet their basic needs, how can they do well in their classes?”

How the support will work varies depending on which campus the student is on. 

At the Vancouver campus, students will have four options to access food such as a $100 e-gift card at participating Loblaws locations, a discount on a plan for two weeks of free meals with a purchase of a meal plan through UBC Eats, a discount on meal plans through a UBC Card meal plan called “Eat for Less,” or getting $100 of direct funds to their student card at eligible locations around campus. 

Additionally, in November, the Wellbeing Design Lab will be introducing the Food Hub, an online resource for students to learn more about food security supports, financial and food literacy, how to take action in promoting the issue of food insecurity, and more. 

The goal of the Hub is “to simplify the experience of locating resources and supports for UBC community members both in Vancouver and the Okanagan, by creating a centralized location that is ‘user friendly’ and appeals to both food insecure and food secure community members,” according to the Food Hub project brief

With these two new projects and other food security initiatives the university is doing, Kozicky says it’s important to have these types of programs for students to maintain their physical health and mental wellness.

“That connection with food insecurity and mental health needs to be talked about far more,” says Kozicky. “And your social wellbeing as well too is highly impacted. You can’t have the experiences with your classmates and friends that you may want to.” 

She says students who face food security have a more challenging time having the typical university experience. 

“How do you have that student experience that universities want students to have? That you can go abroad, volunteer, go to these campus events that people work so hard to plan,” says Kozicky. “If you’re experiencing food insecurity, it makes it a whole lot harder. You’re working two or three jobs and barely addressing your studies.”

To address the problem of food insecurity, Kozicky says income-based solutions and policies are the most effective in trying to solve this issue within post-secondary institutions. 

She says that these programs at UBC and other institutions take a lot of time to come into place, which can be challenging for those who need help right now. 

“It takes a lot of advocacy, conversations, understanding, and having data and evidence to support policies and change. Change isn’t always easy to do,” she says. “It takes time. So we always have to balance.”

As SFU, KPU, and UBC continue to create short and long-term solutions for helping post-secondary students face food security, Soma and Kozicky both hope to see institutions working together to generate more ideas.

“Universities, in general, shouldn’t have to have a food bank. There should be communal spaces, kitchens and food that is affordable,” says Soma. “Food is a right.”