Campus food banks are battling food insecurity for students

Student food initiatives have seen an increase in requests this semester and are struggling to keep up with demand, organizers and volunteers say

Food banks at post-secondary institutions see increase in demand due to rising cost of living. (Submitted)

Food banks at post-secondary institutions see increase in demand due to rising cost of living. (Submitted)

With the rising cost of food, rent, and tuition, many post-secondary students are having to pick between food and rent. 

Meal Exchange Canada, an organization that helps create and conduct research on student-focused food programs, found that 57 per cent of post-secondary students faced food insecurity in the fall 2021 semester and 32 per cent of students skipped meals because they couldn’t afford them. 

The issue of food insecurity for post-secondary students has only worsened due to inflation, reaching a 10 per cent rise in groceries over the past year and supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Student food banks and initiatives in British Columbia have seen an increase in requests this semester. They are either struggling to keep up with the demand or don’t have enough staff to help create food hampers. 

Piper Hammerstrom, Kwantlen Student Association student services manager who works for the society’s Student Food Bank, says the summer semester saw between 50 to 70 requests monthly. This fall she saw an increase between 60 to 100 requests every two to three weeks. 

“Sometimes we’re getting so many requests and we just don’t have enough staff on to get [students] the bags that they need,” Hammerstrom says. 

“Only one department runs it right now, so we’re looking at expanding that to two different departments so that someone’s going to always be here to get the hamper when the student can come pick it up.” 

Kwantlen Polytechnic University students interested in applying for a hamper can fill out a form on the KSA website. Students are asked their name, student email and number, if they’re a full-time or part-time student, if they are domestic or international student, and which campus they would like to pick up their hamper. After submitting a request, students will receive an email confirmation of their request and will be notified when their hamper is ready for pick-up. Students are eligible for two hampers per month. 

Hammerstrom says a single student will receive two bags of food and a student with a dependent will receive four. Instant noodles, canned soup, fruit cups, oatmeal, granola bars, pasta, and cookies are some of the items included in the food hampers. 

“When we’re buying food, we try to get a mix of breakfast food and lunch [or] dinner items,” Hammerstrom says. 

Every few weeks, Hammerstrom buys six to 12 boxes of each item from Costco. In the summer, she says the food bank worked with the CSA Produce Box Program and if they had extra produce, they would give it to the KSA. She says the food bank tries not to offer produce to prevent food waste. 

“The issue is, we understand students’ schedules are busy, so if we set a time for you to come pick up a hamper and we have fresh carrots for you and you don’t pick it up, then those carrots might go to waste,” she says. 

“Some students want fresh fruit or veggies, so we’ve been playing with that idea. But we just don’t know where they come [to] pick it up from right now. We just don’t have a community space for that,” Hammerstrom says, adding that she wants to add a bowl at the Richmond campus for students to take as they need fresh produce as well. 

With low staff to run the food bank, this makes it challenging to deliver students their hampers on time. Hammerstrom says there are 12 member services staff across four campuses who are in charge of packaging and distributing the food hampers to students in addition to other duties, but most are in Surrey and Richmond. 

“We’re getting about 60 to 100 requests, and that means it’s 60 to 100 hampers to make and that’s also not depending on whether or not they have a dependent,” she says, adding that during the holiday season they will provide SPUD gift cards to supplement hampers. 

There is also limited space for the KSA to make the hampers. The room currently used is inside the Grassroots Café, which can only fit a couple of staff members at a time. This makes it difficult to meet the high demand. Hammerstrom says they had a meeting with Steve Cardwell, vice president, students, and his team in October asking KPU for more space. 

“We’re hoping that they’ll give us a room that we can dedicate to the KSA Food Bank program,” she says, adding that she hasn’t heard from them yet since the meeting and is planning to follow up in the new year. 

At the Sept. 16 executive meeting, KSA executives voted in support for a donation of $2,000 to the Guru Nanak Food Bank in Surrey. 

The idea came from VP External Affairs and Langley Campus Representative Karan Singh due to the issues of staffing and how the KSA Food Bank can’t always supply produce. Singh says he wanted students to have a place to go as a backup to access food. 

“Food is a basic need,” Singh says. “The main thing which was concerning to me was that the recession is coming soon, and a lot of news and people are actually talking about that there will be a shortage on food.” 

“It was my initiative to support our local community food banks here that if something which is predicted will happen, they will not suffer on funds, they will have the proper amount of food available for students to grab and have,” he says. “The $2,000 will be coming back to the students.” 

Singh says he wanted to support the Guru Nanak Food Bank because he had a discussion with the owner about student issues, the recession, and wanted to work on an idea to get help from the KSA. 

“The donation will help the student community as a whole since it will reach as many cities as possible,” Singh says. 

When the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley flooded last year, the Guru Nanak Food Bank rented a helicopter and delivered meals and other supplies to help those impacted.

“So with that mindset, I think it was a positive move to donate some money to them for their [hard work],” he says. “It will be coming back to the students.”  

“Budgets are set and we have a set amount of money that we use every year for the food bank. We don’t want to increase your fees. We don’t want to take away from another funding that could need it, so that’s why we donated it externally and not to the food bank,” Hammerstrom says. “You [don’t] want to put all your eggs in one basket.” 

Hammerstrom says students can come by anytime to pick up a food hamper at the KSA office if they are running low on food. 

“Food security is important for me, so I don’t want students to go hungry.” 

For the Alma Mater Society (AMS) Food Bank at the University of British Columbia, they are also struggling to meet the high demand. 

Kathleen Simpson, senior manager, student services of AMS Student Society for the UBC Vancouver campus, says they are on track to surpass over 7,500 visits to their food bank this school year. 

In the 2021/2022 school year, she says the food bank saw a huge increase from the previous year, where the total number was over 7,500 visits. As of now, she says they’ve had 5,713 visits so far for the 2022/2023 school year. 

“I think the cost of living is a huge contributing factor and that’s why we’re seeing a huge demand,” Simpson says. “There are other programs on campus that are also supporting food security initiatives, but we’re one of the main food bank options available in this area.” 

The AMS Food Bank offers students a variety of food items like produce, canned tuna and beans, milk, and eggs. 

Simpson says one of the biggest challenges the food bank is facing right now is sustainable funding. The food bank received a contribution from UBC for $145,000 to be able to get the best possible items for students. 

“But still, groceries are expensive. Each opening day costs over $3,500 in food purchases alone. So for that reason, funding is obviously a big factor,” she says. 

“That funding will take us until the end of the fiscal year, around May, and then after that, we’ll be in the same or a similar situation. We’re already having to ask for significant financial contributions from the university again in order to be able to meet the demand.” 

Despite the challenges, Simpson says the food bank is here in order to make sure students have the amount of food that they need as much as possible, and that there are other food initiatives on campus to help them as well. 

“Students are in a difficult situation in terms of being able to make financial ends meet. They’re not able to take on as much work that they might normally want to in order to keep up with their studies,” she says. 

“There’s also the cost of tuition, which as we all know, is rising year over year. So food banks are important in order to make sure that the basic needs that students have are being met at their most basic level.” 

At Simon Fraser University, Embark Sustainability is a student-led initiative to create programs and events to “address systemic challenges within our climate and food systems,” according to their website

Food Rescue is one of the programs they have offered since 2016, which gives SFU students free or by donation imperfect-looking produce from grocery stores that don’t meet the selling criteria. The produce is collected from Nesters Market and issued at the Burnaby campus. 

Jamie Hill, the design and communications manager for Embark Sustainability, says the food distribution team expanded Food Rescue to also include a food justice question of the week to encourage conversations about food security for students passing by this semester. 

She says to also build common language around food security on campus, to make sure students are aware they can access resources on campus, and advocate for that access to food on campus. 

Although she isn’t sure if the Food Rescue program has increased need this semester, she says she’s noticed an increase in people asking for food security resources more often. 

“I’m not always present at the Food Rescue table, but I’ve certainly noticed an increased need being shared by other SFU community groups that people are asking around for food security resources more often,” Hill says. “If you think of students and the cost of tuition and other things during university life, it really is an added pressure.” 

One of the challenges the Food Rescue program is facing is the access of food received varies due to being on Burnaby mountain, which can be difficult to travel to by car or transit, Hill says. 

“We’re providing food to vulnerable students that is not up to grocery store standards, when people should have equitable access to fresh food that is culturally relevant to them,” she says. 

“It might be a potato heavy week or something that someone doesn’t prefer to cook with. Say they’re trying to make cultural meals that remind them of home and we’re not able to provide produce specific to that, we sort of get what we get.” 

However, she says it’s important for students to have access to Food Rescue because every student deserves access to healthy, culturally relevant food and to know how to advocate for resources like this. 

The University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) Food Bank & Free Store sees up to 400 people each week, says two food bank officers Atanu Kundu and Crystal Ni. They expect to see the demand increase. 

“That means our demand has increased three times from summer 2021 to summer 2022,” Kundu says. “The thing is it’s really hard for us to keep up with the increasing demand. With the limited budget, it’s really hard to keep up.” 

Due to the high demand, empty shelves in the food bank are more common. Ni says a solution is to try and outsource or host fundraising, but also wants UVic to help the food bank so they can provide more food to students. 

“With this increase in demand, we can’t ask students to pay more, because it’s already really tough,” Ni says. “It would be great if the university could lend a hand as they pay no money into the budget, [or] just running the food bank in general.” 

UVic students are eligible for a hamper every week, which includes items like produce, pasta, rice, and household items like toothpaste, soap, and toilet paper. 

Kishal Scholz, previous coordinator and current volunteer at the UVic Students’ Society Food Bank & Free Store, says she doesn’t expect the need for food banks to go away until there’s solutions to food insecurity, the rising cost of tuition, and other living costs. 

She says some of the solutions could be reducing the cost of tuition for domestic and international students, and living accommodations for not only students but for everyone. 

“In general, there needs to be more services and support for people who need it, and it’s going to be more and more people if issues like this just continue to get worse,” Scholz says. “The food bank is a super important service that can’t go away and really needs to be prioritized.” 

“A food bank isn’t a solution, we are only able to provide supplementary amounts,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to be able to afford to just live or get food.”