Food insecure and far from home

International students are increasingly using food banks amid soaring tuition fees, housing, and food prices

The Guru Nanak Food Bank hosted a mega food drive in on May 1. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

The Guru Nanak Food Bank hosted a mega food drive in on May 1. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

When international students arrive in their country of study, the work of staying food secure can be buried underneath other responsibilities like classes, work, rent, and paying tuition fees. At times, the last item on their to-do list is finding affordable, nutritious meals, and often it’s even harder to find food that offers a small taste of home.

Food insecurity among international students is a growing issue in Canada, and the primary factors contributing to this are high tuition fees and cost of living. In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, over 640,000 international students in Canada were contributing $22 billion annually to the economy and supporting it while filling around 170,000 jobs.

But the high tuition fees are just one factor contributing to food insecurity. International students in Canada also have work restrictions which only allow them to work 20 hours per week off-campus while classes are in session, and full-time during scheduled breaks in the school year. During the pandemic many have lost their jobs, adding another barrier to food security for international students.

The Pacific Immigrant Resources Society (PIRS), in collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS) at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, are conducting a study on need assessment and local food access among newcomers to the Metro Vancouver area. Dr. Wallapak Polasub is a senior research associate with the ISFS and the study’s principal investigator.

Polasub, originally from Thailand, says that she felt fortunate when she immigrated to Canada. When she arrived, she had a support network ready and a job. However, even with her accommodations, starting her life in a new country still made the settling process quite hard.

“That’s why I feel very passionate about this topic, in terms of food security and the barriers facing newcomers,” she says.

The study is divided into three phases. Phase one, which has already concluded, involved surveying the newcomers’ experiences and investigating challenges and barriers they face in accessing food. The survey also asked if participants were interested in participating in local food systems, which Polasub says can take the form of joining a community garden, or sharing meals in a community setting while also cooking new types of food. Volunteering at local food banks is also another way of participating in local food systems. 

Polasub recalls a participant who mentioned how they wished they could join a community garden.

“They felt like they could get their hands dirty, and that’s good for their mental health. In there, they also meet people, and they can get food to take home with them. Participating in the local food system can be so many different things, not just being a consumer, and going to the store and buying food,” she says.

The study also included focus group discussions to collect stories on experiences within the Metro Vancouver food systems. 

Phase two started in April and is focusing on local government and service provider organizations’ policies and activities. Phase three will focus on creating dialogues between newcomers and people who are a part of the local food systems.

“The current direction that we wanted to pursue is the idea of how we create our local food system so that it can help vulnerable immigrants and refugees to integrate, to support them in the social integration [when] starting a new life,” Polasub says.

She also suggests that systemic barriers like language, trauma, and physical and mental health issues can play a role in food insecurity among those who move to a new country.

A 2021 study called Food Security Among International Post-Secondary Students on a Canadian Campus found that international students encounter logistical challenges in attaining food security, and sometimes face difficulties in “sourcing culturally appropriate foods.”

The logistical challenges to attaining food security include lack of time, absence of family support, and limited information about services and resources. Because most international students are enrolled full-time at an institution, most of their time is spent studying or attending classes.

The study also highlighted the lack of affordability of culturally appreciated foods. International students reported that even if they found culturally-appropriate foods, they could not afford them. 

The limited time students have for cooking meals could lead to international students choosing fast and unhealthy choices. A study on the experiences of food insecurity among undergraduate students by the Canadian Journal of Higher Education found that “food insecurity has been associated with poor diet among post-secondary students, a connection noted by students in the research … who reported resorting to cheap, low-quality foods when money was tight.”

Phase one of the study directed by Polasub found similar results when surveyed participants were asked if they had access to food from their culture. Two per cent of participants noted they never had access to food from their culture, 14 per cent said rarely, 39 per cent said sometimes, 27 per cent said usually, and 17 per cent said always.

The survey found that “participants felt moderately stressed if they were unable to access their ethnic food,” stating that one of their key barriers was limited income and high food prices.

In 2019, Canada ranked 18th in the world when the Global Food Security Index measured food affordability, according to Canada’s food price report from this year. But in 2021, Canada ranked 24th in the world.

The report also found how inflation last year increased to 4.4 per cent, reaching an 18-year high. The increase resulted in higher oil costs, housing costs, and rising food prices. Now, inflation is still playing a role in grocery stores as COVID-19-related supply chain challenges continue. 

But, even in the midst of food insecurity, Polasub says they have found that folks who move to a new country are expressing interest in participating in local food systems.

“We found that newcomers are really interested in the things that are going on within the food system. They really see that some opportunities could help them expand their social network, and could help them with their physical health and mental health as well,” says Polasub.

Located at 152 St and 68 Ave in Surrey sits the Guru Nanak Food Bank, named after Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the 10 Sikh Gurus. The food bank was founded on July 1, 2020, with help from the Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib, a few steps away from the food bank. The initiative for the foodbank came after seeing how students were beginning to be impacted by COVID-19. 

Jatinder Minhas is the founder and general secretary of the food bank, and he says he has seen a significant rise in international students who use their services. 

“We started in the first month with 100 students. But right now, we have over 1,200 students. Our total recipients of the Guru Nanak Food Bank are around 1,700 to 1,800. Out of that, 1,200 to 1,300 are international students,” says Minhas. 

In order to help the growing number of students, the food bank relies on volunteers and donors. They receive food items from the business community, family, friends, and their biggest help comes from the Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib.

The essential ingredients the food bank gives to students come from the Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib. These include a big bag of flour called Atta, sugar, and lentils. The food bank also provides around 10 to 12 items which are basic spices to cook Indian meals.

For international students who have just arrived in Canada, the food bank provides them with a welcome package, with the condition that they take the package within 30 days of arriving. 

“In the welcome package, we give them a mattress so that they don’t have to sleep on the floor. We give them a pillow, and we give them a blanket. So that’s a very big help, and students love it. Now we get requests from Google search all the time from all over,” he says. 

Minhas has seen how students book their welcome packages with the food bank even before they have arrived in Canada.

Before students can get their package, they must show proof that they are international students and can only work 20 hours a week. After that, the food bank will give them a file number, and every two weeks the students can take their food without showing further documentation.

Even though the majority of the food they provide is South Asian, Minhas says that anyone can reach out.

“Our criteria is ‘as long as you’re needy.’ You don’t have to be a student. If you’re a senior citizen or single mother, anybody can come.”

Every two to three months, the Guru Nanak Food Bank hosts a food drive. Their most recent one took place on May 1. The food bank welcomed attendees with tea and foods like pakora, while community members mingled and volunteers unloaded mattresses from trucks. The drive collected items such as canned food, rice, sugar, diapers, tea, snacks, and more.

“Food prices are going up, and so in order to meet the need, we have to work hard on the fundraising and the donations,” Minhas says.

Sixty per cent of the participants in Polasub’s study reported that they received their food from food banks or similar places. 

Food systems like Guru Nanak Food Bank are examples of places in which international students are able to get cultural and healthy food choices while gaining a sense of community.

When international students experience food insecurity, some of the outcomes include negative academic performance and negative well-being, according to the 2021 study published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

Negative academic performance can manifest itself through a lack of concentration. Surveyed international students expressed that a lack of food can negatively influence their ability to concentrate on lectures, schoolwork, and exams. At times the lack of food security affected their ability to attend class and midterm exams.

When it comes to the negative impacts on their well-being, surveyed students reported feeling anger, stress, worry, impatience, and anxiety when they did not have enough food. 

To reduce food insecurity and make available culturally appropriate foods, Polasub suggests connecting newcomers with producers. 

“Sometimes producers don’t know either what type of things people may eat who come from different countries. So, these are like a marketing opportunity that we could create in our local food system,” she says.

Her study also suggests other ways to reduce the barriers to food insecurity faced by international students include loosening employment restrictions beyond 20 hours a week, minimizing international student tuition fees, and developing awareness programs that highlight food sources that are culturally and religiously appropriate for the student’s background, which can help make home feel a little less far away.