During her final year of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Olga Belokon faced a terrible choice: pay tuition or eat. An international student from Russia, she’d been surprised by the high cost of living in Vancouver when she started her master’s in Asian studies in 2018, but made it through with limited help from her family back home and a rental that she shared with six roommates. “Then the pandemic hit and I had to support myself fully,” she remembers. “That’s where things turned south quite fast.”
By 2021, Mrs. Belokon (who was not married at the time) was working three jobs to save for tuition which was much higher than that of a domestic student in the same program. This meant she often had to prioritize work over her studies, but she was managing. Then her cat got sick. The vet bill pushed her over the edge at a time when financial sanctions on Russia (for its invasion of Ukraine) had entirely cut
off support from home.
“How can I cut my expenses as much as possible?” she recalls asking herself. That’s when she finally accepted that she had to turn to the food bank for assistance.
Mrs. Belokon is one of many students who reached a financial crisis point in the last couple of years. Kathleen Simpson, senior manager of student services at UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS), which runs the campus food bank, says that inflation, high housing costs and rising tuition fees have converged to create a “perfect storm” that is worsening food insecurity among students.
“We’re seeing the visit numbers go up and up at quite an alarming rate,” she says. Visits to the AMS Food Bank tripled from around 2,500 between May 2020 and April 2021 to about 7,500 in 2021-2022. International students made 79 per cent of the visits to the food bank this past fall though they comprise only 30 per cent of UBC’s enrolment. Ms. Simpson predicts visit numbers for this year will be even higher.
In October, hundreds of UBC students walked out of class demanding more financial support for the school’s food security initiatives. The university responded with a one-time payment of $500,000 to cover both Vancouver and Okanagan campuses. Ms. Simpson says it was not enough – long-term funding and solutions are needed.
“One-time funding is really helpful but when it runs out, we see those effects on the #oor as soon as it happens,” she says. Staples such as bread, eggs and some produce are always available at the food bank but, Ms. Simpson explains, a shortage of funding can mean losing access to items that international students rely on, like rice or legumes.
As inflation and factors like higher transportation costs have led to skyrocketing grocery prices, university and community food banks across the country are experiencing these trends. This past autumn, Global News reported surges in demand for food banks at the University of Alberta in Edmonton as well as Mount Saint Vincent and Dalhousie universities in Halifax. Meanwhile the annual Hunger Count from Food Banks Canada reported a 35 per cent increase in visits to community food banks across the country since 2019.
In response, several universities including Dalhousie, the University of Regina and the University of Victoria, ran fundraising campaigns to support their campus food banks. But a growing number of students and staff are looking for creative solutions beyond the traditional food bank model.
The image of the starving student has long been considered a joke, sometimes even a rite of passage. Few people have considered the real emotional, physical and academic toll of the clichéd student diet of Kraft Dinner and ramen cups.
The Guelph Lab is a collaboration between the University of Guelph and the City of Guelph that is tackling food insecurity. Lab facilitator Sam Laban points out that the image of the starving student has long been considered a joke, sometimes even a rite of passage. Few people have considered the real emotional, physical and academic toll of the clichéd student diet of Kraft Dinner and ramen cups. “This issue was hiding in plain sight for 30 years,” he says.
Today almost every university in Canada has a campus food bank, but Mr. Laban believes they can do better. “For a long time, [the food bank] has been the primary response to food insecurity,” he says. “But that is evolving and changing. It’s part of universities increasingly recognizing the role they play in the broader health and well-being of the students who live, work, study, eat and play at their institutions.”
He points to recent efforts by UBC’s Food Hub as a prime example of the kind of dedicated, collaborative response to the crisis that universities should aim for. Since 2021, the Food Hub has worked on initiatives such as the Meal Share program, which gives students money for residence dining halls or gift cards for grocery stores on campus.
Its most recent project is the Food Hub Market, which first opened in February 2022 as a nine-week pilot project and then re-opened in October 2022 on the main floor of UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. The market offers a variety of produce and dry goods at much lower prices than for-profit grocery stores in the community. By creating a low-cost alternative for groceries that’s open to everyone, the market aims to circumvent the shame many feel when seeking financial aid or food bank support, and to lessen the need for emergency support in the long term.
The market’s director, Kaitlin Wu – who is a co-op student in her fifth year of an arts undergraduate degree majoring in gender, race, sexuality, and social justice – manages a group of around 60 volunteers, most of whom are also students. She says the market is a work in progress, and they are constantly seeking feedback on how to better serve students and the community, right down to how items are displayed on the shelves. “The volunteers help me curate the space and decide where things go,” she says. “Things get moved around every week, depending on what makes sense.”
One of the central tenets of the Food Hub is that food security is not just about making sure people get enough calories and nutrients, but also considers the joy and community associated with food and eating. At the market, that means offering ingredients from around the world, such as palm sugar, paneer and fish sauce, alongside $1-cups of coffee and the ever-popular two-bite brownies. A whiteboard sits at the entry where visitors can write requests for different food items or share ideas for events and programs.
“A lot of the feedback that we’ve been receiving from [customers] is that they’re finding ingredients [that are familiar to them] from their homes,” says Ms. Wu. “We spent a lot of time curating the ingredients that we wanted to carry in the market to make sure people felt safe and that they felt seen.”
Bringing the market to life has been a massive cross-campus effort. Ms. Wu worked with the university’s finance team to set up payments and the facilities team to set up the space, among other partners. Cody Rector, manager of UBC’s student-run Agora Café, has developed recipes that are displayed around the store so students know what to make with the ingredients on the shelves. Dishes such as stir-fry noodles or Instant Pot Spanish rice are quick and easy to cook with limited supplies, space and cooking skill. To cut down on food waste, the market sends any unsold produce to the café.
One of the central tenets of the Food Hub is that food security is not just about making sure people get enough calories and nutrients, but also considers the joy and community associated with food and eating.
U of G has its own version of this initiative that offers fresh produce for a flexible price. At the point of sale, customers are able to choose from a range of different prices according to their needs. Mr. Laban says this model has been successful so far. “We know, because we have all the data from the sales, that some people do and are able to pay the full price,” he says. “Some people choose to pay a little less. So the market actually breaks even on the sale of food.”
Sara Kozicky, who is the food security project manager for UBC Wellbeing, says this kind of out-of-the-box thinking is key to addressing such a large and complex issue at any university. To that end, Ms. Kozicky is part of an informal networking group of university staff and student groups from across the country who work on food security initiatives at their institutions. “There are many people in random roles and positions within the universities or even [in the larger] community,” she says. “People working off the side of their desks, trying to do the best they can to bring hope within the community and do something within their sphere of influence.”
To further this work, she and Mr. Laban organized a virtual conference in 2020 entitled Promoting Food Security in Higher Education, with partners from U of G, the University of Ottawa, McMaster University and community organizations like Meal Exchange (which closed operations in 2022).
Both Ms. Kozicky and Mr. Laban say the conversation about student hunger is gaining traction, but still has a long way to go. As part of the conference, Guelph Lab commissioned an analysis of responses to student food insecurity at 22 campuses across Canada. UBC was given highest marks for its cross-campus coordination and initiatives that support not only food provision but include programming around cultural sensitivity, food literacy and food skills. However, more than half of the institutions surveyed exhibited “limited awareness and engagement” with food security issues. In most of those cases, what initiatives did exist were led by students alone.
Universities, Mr. Laban argues, should take up more of the slack from students who may have limited capacity for this work. He appreciates the lived experience, community connections and energy that students bring to these projects, but believes staff can add longevity and institutional knowledge. He calls this kind of collaboration “leadership without the burden” in that it allows students to guide the work but doesn’t put all the pressure on them to keep it going.
He’s also mindful that universities often increase their revenues by recruiting international students to pay much higher tuition. If that revenue increase is used to fund food security initiatives, this could create a “feedback loop” of need where the very students who are funding these programs are most likely to need them. “Is that even ethical?” he asks.
Since finishing her degree this past summer, Mrs. Belokon has gotten married, started working full time and now calls Vancouver home. Though she will never forget the challenges of her last year of graduate studies, “I’m in a much better place,” she says.
Still, Mr. Laban wonders about the students who didn’t make it and the unseen effects on those like Mrs. Belokon, who did. “Young people are doing the things that we have told them they need to do to succeed [and yet they are] being faced with this challenge,” he says. “Some of them may well still get through university, but will they get through and have succeeded in the ways they might otherwise have done?”