Starving for an Education

The hunger epidemic at Canadian universities


[dropcap]C[/dropcap]anadian post-secondary students are literally hungry for their degrees.

While Food Banks Canada states that over 850,000 Canadians turn to food banks every month, impoverishment has influenced an upsurge in campus food bank usage across the country in recent years.

All students are entitled to three food vouchers valued at $25 a semester. The most recent statistics show that Simon Fraser University saw 872 food voucher requests in 2014 — an increase from the 75 reported semesterly users of the original food bank program in July 2013. This past fall, UBC saw the number of its food bank visits triple compared with the previous year, and a plethora of other universities are experiencing the same problem — a situation that The Canadian Federation of Students calls troubling.

Why the sudden epidemic? Ever-increasing tuition costs, lack of affordable housing, and low-income student jobs in combination with rising food prices and textbook costs are most likely to blame. To wield the life of a student in today’s post-secondary climate is not an easy task: a life riddled with financial strain, employment stress, school-related pressures, and social anxiety also often results in students who let their food needs fall to the wayside.

No student should have to attend lecture hungry, yet thousands of young, struggling students are being forced to choose between an adequate education and their livelihoods; a bitterly ironic reality given that Canada is one of the wealthiest, most sustainable countries on the planet.

So, where is SFU in this growing crisis? Up until December 2013, SFU had an on-campus food bank, run by Student Services and the SFSS, which provided hungry students with food options for 20 years. Located in the Maggie Benston Centre, the food bank served as an inconspicuous location for hungry students. Though, in the summer of 2013, Student Services identified various problems with the service — a lack of accessibility and convenience, as well as the social stigmas experienced by students — which resulted in the discontinuation of the project.

To entirely abolish the old campus food bank system seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

The issue was then relayed to the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), who created a Food Bank Working Group to implement a food access strategy on campus. Cognizant of the fact that the closest food bank is in Port Moody — a tedious 40–50 minute transit ride away —  SFU’s new Emergency Food Bank Program began its pilot phase; one that would allow hungry students $75 worth of food vouchers for Nester’s grocery stores each semester.

Former SFSS President Chardaye Bueckert told The Peak in July 2013 that the goal was to create “a high quality, accessible, stigma free service.”


SFU’s current food voucher program: a real solution?


Keyword: stigma free.

Issues with stigma have plagued campus food aid services before. If students feel self-conscious while using these programs, many are deterred from taking advantage of these services — especially if they feel it’s not confidential.

While SFU’s SFSS Emergency Food Bank Program has undisputedly been of benefit to many users, the most recent report displays many comments — including a handful of negative ones — received from fall 2013 to summer 2014. Negativity was awkwardly wedged between one-sentence expressions of gratitude, conveying that students are still plagued by the social stigma of having to use the program.

While some users express their concerns with the program’s increased lack of confidentiality, other users hint at their deep financial distress — that the $75 limit on food just isn’t enough. Remarks surface such as “the food at Nester’s is too expensive, even for milk and eggs,” and “. . .it would be great to be able to obtain more than three [vouchers] per semester.”

Additionally, The Peak recently came into contact with a number of Reddit users, a number of whom expressed displeasure with their use of the food voucher program.

“Holding up a massive line in Nester’s while the cashier attempted to figure out how to redeem [my vouchers] (she had to call a manager over) was definitely uncomfortable for me,” one user divulged. “The ‘FOOD BANK PROGRAM’ written on the coupons in large letters certainly [doesn’t] make them feel as discrete as I would like them to be either.”

“Students would definitely benefit from a real food bank,” said another anonymous user. “Especially when Nester’s prices are a little steep.”


Bringing back SFU’s original food bank


The SFSS is very vocal of the fact that their food voucher program is used for ‘emergencies’ only. Though one must consider that at a time when food insecurity continues to skyrocket, the definition of ‘emergency’ is unclear. Due to this, to entirely abolish the old campus food bank system is a step in the wrong direction.

Housing, food, and tuition prices will continue to rise, and increasing numbers of hungry students will have to seek other means to quickly provide enough food to get them through their education. With hundreds of SFU students requiring these services, the fact that the SFSS hasn’t increased the amount of voucher-money for each applicant since the program was instated, is an unnerving prospect, even with a funding increase of up to $16,000 annually from Student Services, which was implemented last spring.

To have a food bank re-instated on campus would work in tandem with the voucher program to provide the rest of what these vouchers cannot — an instant, easily accessible resource to those in perpetual need.

Students would be able to utilize a campus food bank whenever they pleased — a benefit especially to those graduate students who currently make use of their grocery card, which takes up to two days to be made available, and only offers a maximum $50 per semester, according the Graduate Student Society website.

Additionally, a food bank would help to alleviate some of the problems with social insecurity. Ogling bystanders can create an awkward environment for hungry students. A food bank would be more inconspicuous than a grocery store, and would place all users ‘in the same boat.’ Because of this, the SFSS would have much less difficulty campaigning to decrease the stigma of having to use the food bank. Though, as more students are forced to use the program, the stigma may begin to diminish on its own.

Moreover, a campus food bank would allow students higher quantities of food. The current system comes with a hefty price to provide simple produce, bread, meat, and eggs. The purpose of an actual food bank is not so much to provide amazing nutrition, but to ensure that students receive enough food — a service that could directly address extreme hunger for longer periods.

It just might be time for SFU to step up to the plate and realize that students are perpetually poor to the point that being hungry becomes a near everyday occurrence.

In a wealthy country, students shouldn’t have to find themselves in these situations. If SFU wants to help alleviate hunger, reviving the food bank program may just be cheapest, most reasonable way to do that. No one should have to choose between paying for breakfast or paying for their education.