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Student food insecurity: a problem before, during and after COVID-19

Many universities have rolled out short-term assistance programs in response to the pandemic, but longer-term solutions are necessary to create lasting change.


The COVID-19 crisis has elevated concerns that postsecondary students, many of whom have lost jobs and access to on-campus food services, will go hungry. In response, universities and student organizations are mobilizing at impressive speed to provide emergency task forces, new funds, beefed-up wellness programs, housing options, care packages and more. However, if we want these short-term responses to create long-term solutions, it is essential universities recognize that student food insecurity was already a significant problem before the crisis began.

Food insecurity can take a variety of forms. It can mean running out of money for food, skipping meals, not having access to food that meets your dietary or cultural preferences, or worrying about having enough to eat. It is often accompanied by a tremendous amount of psychological stress and shame. Yet, student food insecurity is not a failing of one’s responsibility. It is driven by a variety of factors outside students’ control, from restrictive and expensive campus food environments to the rarity of finding work that offers a living wage.

The prevalence of student food insecurity is much higher than many expect, and higher than is experienced by Canadian society at large. Studies consistently find student food insecurity rates range from 30 percent to 40 percent. Given that COVID-19 is already exacerbating many drivers of food insecurity, more than half of students at many postsecondary institutions are likely coping with this challenge right now.

Rates of food insecurity are generally highest among international students as well as black, Indigenous, and students of colour, reflecting – and indeed driven by – broader racial disparities in Canada. There is a robust body of critical and activist work on this topic, exploring, for instance, food insecurity in Indigenous communities and how food insecurity disproportionately affects Black households in Canada.

Research also shows that this experience of food insecurity impacts students’ health, grades and graduation rates. One study found students experiencing the most severe level of food insecurity are more than three times as likely to report psychological distress compared to food-secure students. Other studies have found, for instance, that food-insecure students report lower grades and are more likely to reduce their course load or drop out.

The student income gap

If universities want to address student food insecurity, they will have to recognize their role in addressing the income gap. We know that low income is a strong predictor of food insecurity, and that food insecure students also struggle to afford tuition, rent and other essentials. We know that loan programs don’t automatically protect against food insecurity and nor does having a job. We’re also learning about the impossible decisions food-insecure students face about what to go without in order to pay for their education.

COVID-19 has undoubtably added to this mix a series of unanticipated costs and sudden loss of income that will push people further into food insecurity. In response, we’re seeing concerted efforts by many universities to roll out programs to raise (or maintain) incomes and offset costs. Queen’s University, Laurentian University and the University of Victoria have created new emergency funds, others have created funds specifically for international students and others who are particularly at risk of food insecurity. Federal and provincial governments are also rolling out programs to keep people working (wage subsidies, Canada Summer Jobs Program), provide income support (the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Canada Emergency Student Benefit) and delay costs (interest-free delays on student loan repayment). The Federal government has recently announced additional supports for students and recent graduates.

Provided all students qualify for these programs, and there are concerns that not all will, these programs may prove effective as short-term, stop-gap solutions. Over the longer term, however, there is an opportunity to use this moment to create lasting change. And that means universities taking action, whether it’s improving access to living wage opportunities or advocating for changes to public policy that permanently increase students’ income.

More-affordable food options

Lasting change also means making food options on campus more affordable. Campus food assistance is critical, but donated food (and charity food in general) are short-term responses, not long-term solutions, to the problem of food insecurity. Most campuses have a food bank, often student-run. At best, these are a source of emergency relief, and under the current crisis it’s important they receive funds and donations.

Under normal circumstances, however, food banks serve just a fraction of the total number of people experiencing food insecurity. Food banks also run on limited resources and work with an uncertain supply of food. This creates limited options for students and can force food banks to limit how much food each student can take.

As such, student food banks need more support, but this should be done as a part of an overall reimagining of the campus food environment, one that reconciles wider budget pressures, revenues from campus food services, and the needs of students. This will not be an easy transition, but there are signs work is beginning.

In the last two years, the universities like University of British Columbia, Lakehead University and McMaster University have established cross-campus committees tasked with combatting food insecurity, and in the fall of 2019 representatives from eight universities met at the University of Guelph to explore opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other. Universities interested in joining the next phase of work are encouraged to contact the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute via [email protected].

Sam Laban is the facilitator at the Guelph Lab, a joint initiative of the City of Guelph and University of Guelph. Dr. Jackson is Director of the University of Guelph’s Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, which supports community-university research collaborations. Merryn Maynard is a research specialist with the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security. Philip Loring holds the Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, and Society at the Arrell Food Institute and Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics at the University of Guelph.

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  1. Akua Agyemang / June 13, 2020 at 00:51

    ”No one should ever go hungry even during times of emergency”
    Very little research has been done on food insecurity among university students across the world. Food security is a threat to student success on campuses.This is doubly true for racialized international students.While there is no data available for food insecurity among racialized university students, the data that is available suggests that the levels of food insecurity among this group is likely much higher than average.
    Though culture strongly influences food and eating, not so much is known about the interaction between culture and racialized international student food insecurity .Food insecurity without considering the cultural contexts of food preference paints an incomplete picture.

    Research studies on food insecurity even before the COVID’19 Pandemic shows that food insecurity among post-secondary students are very high and even higher for vulnerable populations like international students. We can all agree that the COVID’19 pandemic has ravaged the economy completely leading to increased food insecurity. Most international students are not eligible to receive funds, donations and benefits during COVID’19 pandemic, making them struggle to afford food, and other essentials.

    Addressing the root of food insecurity ,its impact on the mental health and academic success during and beyond COVID’19 is very essential.