I once volunteered for a campus food bank that provided groceries to food-insecure post-secondary students – until it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Food insecurity among post-secondary students is not new, nor has it been caused by the pandemic. Rather, it has been a severe issue in Canada for quite a while, with approximately 30 to 40 per cent of post-secondary students experiencing some level of food insecurity. The image of the starving student has, in fact, been romanticized for decades.
“Food should be a human right where hungry students should not be romanticized,” Suman Roy, the executive director of Meal Exchange, a charitable organization working for food-insecure post-secondary students, emphasized recently. “When you ask people, ‘Can you remember a good food story when you were in university or college,’ the stories are very minimal. But if you ask anybody, ‘What were the bad food stories?’ then you see them flowing.”
Historically, factors such as high tuition, housing costs, scarce employment opportunities and the high cost of food have contributed to food insecurity among post-secondary students. Students who are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and/or from lower-income households have borne the brunt of student food insecurity.
The image of the starving student has, in fact, been romanticized for decades.
And while the pandemic has led to unimaginable changes in many aspects of our lives, it has also exacerbated food insecurity among post-secondary students.
With campuses closed and students learning remotely from home during the pandemic, some campus food banks were temporarily shut down, further contributing to food insecurity and leaving many students scrambling to access food.
The University of Toronto’s Emergency Food Bank was launched out of an urgent need for a contactless food bank when the campus food bank closed.
“If you were using the (campus) foodbanks, you went from possibly having regular access to food if you were food-insecure … to all of the sudden being left without options or any sort of ability to really determine what services to access when you’re food-insecure,” said Adam El-Masri, founder of the Emergency Food Bank. “When we started our food bank, quite a few people had expressed gratitude around the fact that someone had done something to support them.”
A driving force of food insecurity among post-secondary students is the lack of financial stability. The pandemic added yet more fuel to the fire. In addition to pre-existing financial struggles, the rate of post-secondary student employment fell dramatically at the onset of the pandemic, from 52.5 per cent in February 2020 to 28.9 per cent in April 2020. This lack of part-time and summer jobs further strained the ability to afford food.
A recent survey from George Brown College found that nearly 46 per cent of respondents had struggled more to access affordable food during the pandemic.
The same survey highlighted the pressures students have felt during the pandemic and noted that increased levels of food insecurity impact mental and physical well-being. And even when they can afford to access food, the typical inexpensive post-secondary go-to-meal – ramen noodles – does not provide a balanced and nutritious meal. Unfortunately, filling up with empty calories has been and will continue to be the reality for many students pre-, midst- and post-COVID.
With campuses and campus food banks now re-opened, it is important to recognize the need for long-term strategies beyond food banks to reduce food insecurity.
Roy highlighted the need for such change: “The students are fighting, they’re talking about it but the voices are not being heard and that is the key issue. Student voices are not really heard by the campuses or by various levels of government … We need a national school food policy for post-secondary students.”
In addition to students demanding support and change, it is critical that all levels of government increase much-needed financial aid. We need a reduction in tuition costs and financial support for housing and living costs, major pieces that can help reduce student food insecurity.
El-Masri emphasized the link between food insecurity and poverty among post-secondary students and the need for financial policies and interventions that target eliminating these issues. “(We need) to work toward a vision of a future that will make (food banks) useless because why should you have to access a food bank if you have the funds and opportunities you need to survive.”