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Campus food bank use increasing

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Students at the University of Alberta (U of A) are turning to the Campus Food Bank in greater numbers this year, reflecting a larger national trend.

The HungerCount, Canada's only annual survey on food bank use nationwide, recently published new statistics showing that 71 per cent of Canadian food banks saw an increase of nine per cent between March 2009 and March 2010, with almost 870,000 people turning to food banks in March 2010.

This rise is reflected on campus, where the recession is putting pressure on students already burdened by tuition fees and the cost of living.

Ashley Seibert, executive director of the U of A's Campus Food Bank, explained that food bank use is increasing faster on campus than the national average. Between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, there was a 20 per cent increase in campus food bank usage.

Last year, more than 2,000 students used the food bank, which provides hampers designed to provide four days' worth of food.

While in previous years students were able to make enough money during the summer months to support themselves in the school year, Siebert points to the recent slump in the job market as a major reason for the increase in food bank use over the past few years.

Seibert explained that there is usually a jump in usage in September and October while people are waiting for student loans to come in. In addition, she said the end of winter semester can be a busy time.

"People access our services as they start to deplete their resources at the end of the semester," Seibert said. "We have traditionally seen a spike in both users and in donations, which is great because it balances each other out."

At the U of A, 29 per cent of students using the food bank in the 2009-2010 year relied on student loans as their primary income, while The HungerCount reports that 1.6 per cent of Canadian households nationwide are relying on student loans as a primary income.

Seibert said that this has led to a close partnership between the Campus Food Bank and the financial aid information centers on campus.

"We make sure that students know about these other tools, other than just student debt, that are available to them if they're really struggling and unable to make ends meet," she said, citing bursaries and access funds as other means of support.

One of the food bank's former clients, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke highly of the Campus Food Bank's role on campus.

"The food bank provides people with the opportunity to focus on school. They helped me manage the stress of not knowing what I was going to eat for the next week," the third-year education student said.

Citing financial problems as his reason for turning to the food bank, the student said he was unaware of a stigma against food bank use, but admitted to being self-conscious when he first came to the Campus Food Bank.

Seibert is optimistic that the release of these statistics by The HungerCount and the media attention to the increase will do much to reduce the stigma attached to using food banks on campus.

This article was first published in The Gateway, the official student newspaper at the University of Alberta.

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