Food centres see student traffic

AMS Food Centre and Martha's Table work to make student visitors feel more comfortable

The AMS Food Centre opened in 1997 to accommodate students using the Kingston Food Bank. Martha’s Table on Princess Street serves $1 dinners to community members in need.
The AMS Food Centre opened in 1997 to accommodate students using the Kingston Food Bank. Martha’s Table on Princess Street serves $1 dinners to community members in need.

Organizers at local food banks are working to reduce the stigma associated with students who seek help.

The AMS Food Centre in MacGillivray-Brown Hall sees as many as 100 visits per month.

Visitors have to show their student card to access the Food Centre.

“Any student is welcome to use the Food Centre,” Food Centre Director Laura Stairs said.

“This is a period in our lives when we are not only continuing to grow but we’re also using our brains so it’s really important that we have the adequate nutrition to support that continued development.” The Food Centre opened its first location on Earl Street in 1997 to field the students who’d been frequenting the Kingston Food Bank.

Students who are living in poverty at Queen’s are able to access services to ease the financial strain that student life can bring. But many choose to stay away from the student-run organization.

“There is definitely a stigma when it comes to using the Food Centre,” Stairs said.

“In an environment like Queen’s where there is this perception that students come from wealth, it can be difficult to admit to the students that you might see in class that you actually can’t afford healthy food.”

The Food Centre operates three times a week with staff working hour-long shifts. Stairs said seven or eight people visit every day.

Stairs has tried to alleviate the stigma attached to using a food bank by reducing the differentiation between volunteers and students. Students who use the Food Centre can also volunteer there so it’s less obvious they’re using it for support. “We’re all a part of this community where we all have access to food, we just access it in different ways,” Stairs said.

Currently, the Food Centre has 28 student volunteers.

The Food Centre doesn’t track each student visit, but the number of visits per shift is noted. They don’t limit how much food students can bring home per visit.

The Food Centre receives a $2,500 grant from the University every year and collects a $1 opt-outable student fee from the AMS and Society of Graduate and Professional Students.

Stairs said sometimes people will leave bags of groceries on the steps outside MacGillivray-Brown Hall as donations.

Groups on campus run around five food drives a semester to donate to the Food Centre. There’s also a bin in Metro where people can make donations.

“Some of the non-perishable food here right now is from ‘Trick or Eat’ last Halloween,” Stairs said.

During Trick or Eat, costumed students went door-to-door to collect food donations.

Stairs said even students from middle-class households don’t have enough money to get the things they’re used to.

“An interesting thing about student poverty is that it’s often a transient phase,” Stairs said. “Hopefully, we graduate and get good jobs and that time of our life is over.”

Students looking for food support have off-campus options as well.

Director of Martha’s Table, Ronda Candy, said a few Queen’s students who regularly use Martha’s Table.

The Princess Street organization gives out three-course meals for $1.

Candy said she’s working specifically to address the stigma surrounding receiving help from food centres. Representatives from Martha’s Table are hoping to speak at Frosh Week in September.

She said some students opt for Martha’s Table because they don’t know how to cook.

“We have a full meal and it’s already prepared and that’s a good thing for our guests because they don’t necessarily have everything that they need to prepare it,” Candy added that the variety of different foods is meant to draw visitors.

“We try to be nutritious and we’re aware that, for some people, we are their main meal source. We cook with low salt, low oil and low trans fats. We try to make it look appealing and we present it in a dignified and respectful manner.”

Martha’s Table is financially supported by the Kingston community and doesn’t receive any government funding. Around 50 student volunteers from Queen’s help out at Martha’s Table during the week.

“It’s really inspiring because I know how busy they are and for them to go to the extra trouble to do something for the community and help others is just wonderful,” she said, adding that all volunteers are invited to stay for dinner.

“Some of those that volunteer with us may actually need to use the service, but prefer to come in as a volunteer and stay for dinner.” Service volunteers treat the people the way they’d want to be treated at the service themselves, she said.

“It’s a lot for people to overcome to just walk in the door. We work hard on that,” Candy said.

“I always tell people, it could be you or me. If you lost your job and had no support system then how long would you have before you needed assistance?”

The Ban Righ Centre gives free soup to students every day. They also provide need-based grants and bursaries for students ranging from $500 to $1,200.

Interim University Registrar Teresa Alm said 50 per cent of Queen’s undergraduate students receive some sort of financial assistance.

“There’s a broad scope of students who use financial assistance,” Alm said. “To a large extent financial aid is received by students who have entered university straight from high school, but there are obviously mature students who might be married or have children.”

Queen’s gives approximately $21 million to undergraduate students based on merit and need. Graduate students only receive need-based help from Student Awards. Merit-based contributions come from the School of Graduate Studies. Government assistance is offered through the Student Awards Office.

Alm said some students in need of financial aid choose not to apply for it because they don’t wish to report their parents’ income.

“Some students would rather work extra hours instead of accessing government student assistance,” she said.

Alm said the stigma toward financial aid is becoming less prominent.

“The government has altered the threshold at which parents would be expected to contribute towards education,” she said. “There are now more students qualifying that are in the middle-income range.”

— With files from Terra-Ann Arnone

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