Data across the board suggests increased food bank usership

Food banks a band-aid solution to food insecurity

Graduate students are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity.

Early July saw the hallowed limestone buildings on campus going without the usual hustle and bustle of students milling to and from classes. For Rianna Murchison, AMS Food Bank head manager, the quiet campus meant nothing for the operations of the AMS Food Bank, which she’s preparing to open for service.

On an average summer day, Murchison arrives at Rideau Hall at 2:30 p.m. alongside the AMS Food Bank’s Marketing and Outreach Assistant Manager Jessica Rogers in a taxi full of groceries. The duo quickly fills a wagon with canned goods and lugs boxes of vegetables, dairy products, meat, and other pantry items into room 105.

After all items are accounted for, Murchison darts across the small concrete room, shelving groceries item by item. Tucked beside a fridge, Rogers separates meat into portions before gently placing them into a freezer. Once all groceries are shelved, Murchison turns her attention towards special orders from patrons, filling boxes with family necessities such as diapers, baby formula, and shampoo.

Another box holds Napa, a Chinese cabbage, which Murchison says is an ingredient requested frequently by one regular patron of the Food Bank.

It’s hot—the garage door at the building’s side rests slightly open, but without a breeze the afternoon air is sweltering. Despite the heat, Murchison remains poised and organized. She prepares to welcome patrons to the Food Bank.

Post-pandemic inflation caused basic living expenses to skyrocket, sparking conversations about food insecurity on university campuses. While Statistics Canada recently reported the annual inflation rate fell to 2.8 per cent in June, grocery prices continue to soar with an average increase of 9.1 per cent increase in the last year.

In 2022, 18.4 per cent of Canadian households across ten provinces experienced food insecurity. At Queen’s, 29 per cent of students indicated they experienced food insecurity in the same time frame.

Increase in Food Bank usage

Ever since opening its doors in 1997, the AMS Food Bank has provided non-judgmental and confidential services to Queen’s students who need assistance accessing groceries.

The service is currently open from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 12:30PM on Thursdays.

To fill the shelves for its patrons, Murchison places weekly grocery orders with Grant’s No Frills on Sunday evening. This process involves restocking regular food bank stock and filling special orders.
She repeats the process on Tuesday evening for restock and service on Wednesday and Thursday.

Routinely stocked items include bread, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, cereal, soup, tomato sauce, pasta, crackers, green beans, and canned goods such as tuna, fruits, and vegetables. The service offers
fresh produce including apples, bananas, Roma tomatoes, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce, as well as meat and protein-rich meat alternatives.

To ensure there’s enough stock, Murchison said the food bank limits the amount patrons can take of certain products, with meat and dairy products considered to be especially expensive commodities. Patrons are limited to taking either a pack of ground beef, one chicken breast, two drumsticks, or a portion of tofu. Eggs aren’t to be taken by the dozen and are instead separated into cartons of four.

Murchison currently spends roughly $1,500 on groceries each week. This coming year, the service has budgeted $50,940 for food purchasing, marking a 30 per cent increase from last year’s budget, where the food bank spent a total of $35,784 on groceries.

Though the summer streets of campus run vacant in comparison to the academic year, the number of patrons at the Food Bank this summer alone have notably increased from last year. Murchison serves roughly 30 to 35 patrons each restock shift, with patrons lining up for food an hour before opening. Last year, approximately 10 to 15 patrons would access the service each shift.

“That’s obviously a really huge increase, which is a great thing that the service has been brought aware of, but also with such a low budget, it is hard to maintain access for all patrons that do come,” Murchison said in an interview with The Journal.

Despite a mandatory student activity fee of $4 from both undergraduate and graduate students to fund the bulk of food bank spending, a higher demand for groceries from a larger volume of students creates a central issue—more pressure on the service’s ability to support students.

To mitigate this demand, the Food Bank has set a fundraising goal of $13,750 for the 2023-24 year.

The ever-increasing demand for groceries isn’t unique to the Queen’s AMS Food Bank. The student-run food bank operated by the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) AMS is also facing a strain as demand for food support services rises.

UBC’s AMS Food Bank is funded largely by student dollars, receiving additional support from the University alongside private donors.

According to Senior Manager of Student Services Kathleen Simpson, UBC’s AMS Food Bank spent $250,000 on groceries alone in the 2022-23 academic year. This number is expected to increase to $400,000 in the upcoming year.

The projected cost for the 2023-24 academic year accounts for two things: a data proven increase in students accessing food bank services and inflation.

“Our user numbers have either doubled or tripled every year for the past three years, and we expect a doubling in the number of students who are accessing the Food Bank this year. That’s kind of what that projection is based off,” Simpson told The Journal in an interview.

“You’re not just accounting for the number of students that you have coming to theFood Bank and the user costs, but also the increase in food pricing for inflation. That kind of estimate takes into account both of those factors,” she said.

Simpson shared that in the 2020-21 year, UBC’s AMS Food Bank had 2,317 user interactions, with 7,496 interactions the following year. In 2022-23, the service interacted with hungry patrons a total of 16,253 times.

With current projections of the volume of students doubling over the year, the Food Bank expects approximately 20,000 user interactions in the coming year.

Strains caused by inflation on food banks present twofold challenges. When the rising cost of living drains students’ bank accounts, more students are driven to food banks as the purchasing parity of groceries becomes scarce. Food banks, in turn, must balance an increase in usership while keeping food purchasing costs low.

Though the UBC AMS Food Bank has existing partnerships with some grocers to reduce food costs, the price of some products has increased as much as 20 per cent in a span of four months.

Simpson said balancing the increasing demand for food bank services with increasing grocery costs involves making several difficult decisions.

This past April, the Ubyssey reported UBC’s AMS announced a policy change to the AMS Food Bank that rendered the University’s staffers ineligible for the food bank’s services. According to Simpson, this decision was necessary if the AMS Food Bank wanted to provide the same quality of services to students in the coming year.

“It’s not that we’re currently giving students more than we did last year, it’s just that we’re able to maintain that same level of service that we did from last year through to this year, knowing that our user numbers are going to grow and the cost of some of our food items are growing quite substantially,” Simpson said.

Simpson added projected costs of food purchasing to support UBC staff using the Food Bank would equal $300,000 for the full year in addition to the $400,000 projected cost of supporting students.

“For that reason, we felt that as a student society, funded by student fees, we ultimately had to make the difficult decision to prioritize students in what we’re offering.”

The food banks at both Queen’s and UBC see similar demographics accessing services. Murchison
said most of the patrons at Queen’s are graduate students, international students, and students
with familial responsibilities. At UBC, international students make up 72 per cent of all students referring to the service, and 52 per cent of all students are graduate students.

Graduate students struggling

Food banks aren’t the only institution currently struggling to provide food resources under the strain of inflation. Labour unions on campus have started looking to better mitigate food insecurity among their members.

With graduate student workers being one demographic experiencing a particularly significant strain, PSAC 901 launched its Emergency Food Support Fund to aid graduate student workers. First implemented this past January, funds for the program have been exhausted twice.

PSAC 901 President Justyna Szewczyk El Jassem said the most recent launch of the fund points to immense strains on graduate student budgets.

The second implementation of the Emergency Food Support Fund was opened this past month. In a press release, PSAC 901 reported receiving 205 applications for aid in the program’s first week.

“We received 205 applications just when we opened the program,” El Jassem told The Journal in an interview. “To put [that] into perspective, we had over 400 applications in the previous round, which was 15 weeks long.”

El Jassem credits the increase of support-seeking students in the summer launch of the Emergency Food Support Fund to scarce employment for graduate students during the summer-time. Where all graduate students within their funding periods are guaranteed either teaching or research assistant positions in the regular academic year, these positions become sparse during summer.

While El Jassem mentioned some students might seek employment elsewhere, she noted the need to work in the summer takes away from these students’ valuable research time.

“Let’s be honest, summer is the time when we can do our other work, which is research because [with] teaching obligations, it’s very difficult to fully focus on research,” she said. “A lot of people just do their research work over the summer and are not able to take other employment options.”

PSAC 901 launched the Emergency Food Support Fund with over $20,000 to offer PSAC members. The union secured funding through a GoFundMe page and donations from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1302, and the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA). The bursary was funded through money set aside from an emergency hardship grant the labour union set aside at the beginning of its current collective agreement as a temporary aid to students.

Since the last bargaining period, graduate student workers only received a one per cent wage increase due to Bill 124 still being active law at the time of bargaining. The hardship bursary was implemented to aid students struggling to stay afloat due to minimal wage increases and rapidly increasing cost of living expenses.

Students who accessed support from the Emergency Food Support Fund successfully received
grocery gift cards to give maximum autonomy to members.

Despite providing support for some members, El Jassem said PSAC 901 isn’t equipped to cover all its members’ needs.

PSAC 901 is involved with Unity Council, an amalgamation of all unions representing Queen’s
staff. Unity Council puts pressure on the University to provide better wages for its workers.

“This labour union is not an institution that can solve [food insecurity]. We’re just trying to help the most food insecure members that we know of” she said. “Food banks and food programs are only patches.”

From a student government perspective, Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) President Devin Fowlie said food insecurity is among one of the more vocalized problems for students. He agreed with El Jassem that low graduate funding packages are particularly to blame for graduate student
food insecurity.

“With rising rent costs, [and] relatively stagnant funding for the last while for graduate students, it’s had a huge impact on food insecurity,” Fowlie said in an interview with The Journal. “We know that food bank [use] has gone up dramatically for graduate and professional students—which is a large component of the financial instability piece.”

“We cannot expect to claim that we are a high-performing research institute if we achieve that through having food insecure graduate students.”

A Band-Aid solution

In 1981, the first Canadian food bank opened in Edmonton. The idea behind food banks at the time was to provide a temporary charitable relief as Canadians struggled through a recession. Forty-two years later, economic crises still reinforce food banks as community fixtures of dependence in need of donations and volunteers.

At the Partners in Mission Foodbank on Hickson Ave., Executive Director Dan Irwin credits the continued success of the organization to the generosity of the Kingston community, despite breaking records of patrons served each year.

Partners in Mission supplies 80 to 85 food hampers to individuals and families struggling to put food on the table. While the organization budgeted $425,000 for food purchasing this year, Irwin expects a total of $2.6 million in food to be distributed within the community.

Despite being one of these community fixtures, Irwin stressed food banks are not the solution to food insecurity. They’re a band-aid solution.

“We’re not here to solve food insecurity. That’s not what food banks do. Food banks are a very necessary band aid to keep people going and get them through the month,” he said. “Feeding hungry people’s what we do. Food insecurity is about income.”

Irwin noted the implementation of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in March 2020 as a direct example of how livable incomes provides better access to food. While the number of patrons at Partners in Mission set new records each year in the four years Irwin has been at the organization, 2020 is a lone exception.

“To be honest, CERB saved us,” he said. “2020 was the first dip in total users for many years.”
“In Kingston, if you had two people who were laid off and were collecting $2,000, each with our cost of living in 2020 that’s sustainable. They could go buy groceries.”

Like Irwin, Elaine Power, professor in the school of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s, expressed
how food insecurity is a problem of income. She also noted food banks wrongfully promote the stigma associated with food insecurity.

This stigma in Canada stems largely from a neoliberal political climate where people without access to food internalize blame for not being able to feed themselves independently of social supports.

Being food insecure at a wealthy institution like Queen’s amplifies this stigma exponentially for students.

“Because we live in this kind of neoliberal society where we’re expected to look after ourselves, the expectation is that [being food insecure] is your fault, and you should be able to manage,” Power said in an interview with The Journal.

“No one wants to be poor, especially in the society that we live in, where consumption is a marker of status. Using the food bank for most people, not just students, is kind of a sign they hit the bottom.”

“[Food banks] give us the illusion that we’re looking after the problem,” she said. “We have a ton of evidence now to say that this is not about food, that this is a problem of income.”

Power explained the erasure of experiences of food insecurity at the postsecondary level is dangerous. While postsecondary education used to promise a pathway to upward social mobility for students so long as they worked hard, it’s getting increasingly difficult to succeed in university settings without adequate food supply.

Food insecure students are more likely to take on additional work during school, taking valuable time away from their studies.

“If you’re food insecure, you’re less likely to succeed at university. You’re more likely to drop out, you’re more likely to take longer, you’re going to accumulate more debt,” Power said.

“That doesn’t even count the people who don’t even bother to come because they know they’re not going to be able to afford it and they can’t count on families to help them out,” she said.

Students without family assistance are particularly vulnerable to becoming food insecure.

“One of the things that struck me during the research is how much we assume that parents [and] families are in a position to be able to help [their] kids. That’s true for a lot of people, but not all.”

For Power, it’s ultimately a university’s responsibility to provide better structural changes to solve food insecurity among students. She mentioned though Queen’s advertises a handful of services to low-income students, the University needs to move beyond mere marketing and live up to its Sustainable Development Goals.

“I like to think of universities as centres of critical thinking, of actually thinking about these issues and in a real way that not just like superficial marketing, devices to kind of cover up,” she said.

“It’s the place of the university to say no, this isn’t good enough to hold up.”


Despite hoping for better systemic change at the institutional level, both Murchison and Irwin both agree the best way to support people experiencing food insecurity is by donating to food banks. Whether through food donations, volunteering, or simply sharing the food bank’s message, any form of support helps these organizations stay afloat.

Murchison thinks it’s especially important to improve awareness of food insecurity
among Queen’s students.

“Because Queen’s is such a wealthy institution, I think a lot of people don’t think about the effects that food insecurity has on its students. But it is important to be educated and understand that not everybody is as privileged as others,” Murchison said.

“As someone who has dealt with food insecurity and food vulnerability, this service is something I would have really benefited from if I knew about it at the time, so I’m very grateful to be able to work in such an important service now and educate people on the importance of it.”


AMS food bank, Food bank, food insecurity, Inflation, longform, PSAC 901

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