Rising tuition leading to empty cupboards

The realities of food insecurity pose health and financial issues for university students

40 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students are “food insecure” according to Meal Exchange’s recent report. 

“It’s the remix to ignition, college student edition, eating ramen for dinner, can’t afford my tuition.”

The amusing take on a “starving student” lifestyle widely circulated through Yik Yak, Twitter and just about every other form of social media at different universities last year. But the reality of food insecurity on campus remains.

40 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students are “food insecure” according to the Hungry for Knowledge report released by Meal Exchange — a non-profit organization that works to combat student hunger — in October of this year.

Food insecurity, a relatively new term, is defined by Meal Exchange as having financial constraints that “limit the ability of an individual or household to purchase adequate amounts and types of foods.”

Someone who’s food secure has the physical or economic recourses to access enough healthy foods that meet their dietary and cultural needs. For example, food insecurity includes being anxious about running out of money to buy food, not having enough money to eat balanced meals or not eating for extended periods due to a lack of money.

The Hungry for Knowledge report looked at five universities across Canada, not including Queen’s, however AMS Food Bank Manager, Cole Smith, wasn’t surprised when he saw the findings.

The Food Bank has been operating at Queen’s since 1997 to provide both fresh and non-perishable foods to students who need it. According to Smith, ArtSci ’17, it receives about 20 to 30 visits a week, with a larger percentage of these visits being from international students. 

In 2015, it reported around 20-25 visits per week, which was a 50 per cent jump from the year previous.

According to Smith, there are students on campus who have to choose between a healthy meal with a roof over their head or succeeding academically, “all that while trying to maintain the same student experience and quality of life that should be extended to all students who come to our campus.”  

The report cites the rising cost of tuition as the largest factor contributing to food insecurity. It states that the average cost of tuition per semester for 2015-16 was $6,191 in Canada, compared to $3,192 in 1993-94. 

According to Meal Exchange, in 2014 the average student was graduating with $26,500 in debt. 

While the report identified tuition as the biggest factor in food insecurity for students, the growing costs of rent, utilities and food are factors that threaten food security as well. 

Meal Exchange found that Aboriginal, black and international students, as well as students with dependent children are the most vulnerable to food insecurity.

From their findings, Meal Exchange made recommendations, firstly to look into the issue more. Relatively little research has been done on student food insecurity and more data would help researchers and policy makers understand the roots and potential solutions to food insecurity among post-secondary students.

The next was exploring the idea of a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI), to allow low-income students to pursue a post-secondary education with fewer barriers. Additionally, affordable housing should become a priority for students, the report says, as post-secondary institutions fail to match increasing enrolment with student housing needs.

Finally, the report recommended increasing access to education for Aboriginal students, tying the issue of food insecurity into the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

But what does food insecurity look like at Queen’s?

While there’s no hard data regarding food insecurity at Queen’s, Smith believes that trends are no different here than elsewhere. However, he observed that there are general misconceptions regarding what food insecurity looks like. 

“I think our patron base is highly under-representative of people who could benefit from using the food bank and who might have a normalized conception of what food insecurity is, and they are saying ‘I don’t have that, even if they might be captured under the metrics that meal exchange was using,” he said.

Smith noted that when you’re at school, you’re unable to generate income, yet you’re expected to pay enormous fees. 

According to Smith, studies have shown that food insecurity can put students at a significant disadvantage to their peers. Still, it’s assumed that this is just the status quo, that student hunger is just part of the student experience. 

“We don’t want people to think that, in the sense that they have to struggle through at the risk of their health and their success in school, and so we hope that people will see the AMS Food Bank as a resource they can access when they are in a position of need,” Smith said.

In September of this year at a Board of Trustees meeting, Rector Cam Yung brought to the administration’s attention that 30 students had used the AMS Food Bank’s services over the span of two days, he said in an email to The Journal

According to Yung, the service runs off a budget of $250 a week and donations from the community. 

“In my opinion, this is not sustainable,” Yung wrote. 

For Yung, not having food in their stomachs shouldn’t be a barrier to education. “There needs to be a greater awareness for student, staff, faculty, and administration and the general Queen’s community about food insecurity on our campus,” he wrote.  

“This is not an emerging issue. It has been an issue for a long time.” 

The AMS Food Bank is open daily from 10-11:30am and 5-6:30 pm in MacGillivray-Brown Hall at 218 Barrie Street. In January 2017, the Food Bank will be moving to its new location at JDUC 343.

The AMS Food Bank is open to anyone without proof of need and welcomes donations.

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