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How can post-secondary students achieve their academic and professional goals if they’re going hungry? A lengthy report released on October 27 by Meal Exchange, Canada’s only national organization dedicated to providing students with resources to quell food access instability, suggests far more students than we realize may be struggling to feed themselves properly.

The new report, currently the nation’s largest study on student food insecurity, reveals that out of over 4,000 students surveyed from five universities across Canada, a surprising 39 per cent are food insecure. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, this means that they do not have the physical or financial means to access nutritious food that meets their needs at all times. Moreover, 8.3 per cent of these students experience severe food insecurity.

The report also finds that the top barriers to food access include rising food prices, tuition fees, housing costs and inefficient income or financial support.

These findings are reflective of a larger insecurity that’s quickly infiltrating the country. Food Banks Canada reports in its 2015 Hunger Count that over 850,000 Canadians now turn to food banks each month, a 26 per cent increase from 2008. Sadly, students are one of the fastest-growing demographics to use food banks — a frightening and confusing situation for Canada’s future workforce. 

Nearly half the student food bank users at the University of Alberta are severely food insecure as Metro News reported this past August. Moreover, the University of British Columbia’s food bank coordinator, Taruni Singh, states that the Alma Mater Society (AMS) food bank is “definitely on a pretty large upward trend with its usage rate.” A chart obtained from the food bank indicates that it saw over 1,150 visits for the 2015/16 school year, up from 830 the year before.

After interviewing student food bank users from the University of Alberta, Jasmine Farahbakhsh confirms some of the consequences of student food insecurity in her 2015 Master’s thesis. Students who were forced to rely on food banks to feed themselves can have “poor health outcomes, diminished dietary intake, and perceived negative academic outcomes.”

In light of all this, Meal Exchange’s report demands a national discussion on student food insecurity. First, the sad irony that our future graduates are expected to comprise a fully competent workforce, yet cannot sustain themselves enough to meet those demands. Tightened government funding has inflicted steady tuition increases across the country, which do not bode well for those students who have no choice but to provide for themselves under the weight of inflated housing costs and food prices. 

While stretching a dollar can be seen as a skill in managing one’s money, the evidence here proves that more students are stretching their finances to unreasonable means — especially those with children or other dependents. As the demand for skilled and educated workers increases, it’s essential that students have the appropriate means to ensure their full health — mental and physical.

Equally troubling are the particular student demographics that face food insecurity. 

“I think some of the most surprising findings were who was food insecure, especially around race and ethnic backgrounds,” says Drew Silverthorn, lead author of the report. The results indicate that Indigenous (56 per cent), African (75 per cent), and Caribbean (53 per cent) students experience the highest rates of food insecurity, and are also finding it difficult to access traditional or cultural food.

Silverthorn emphasizes the need for further research, however. “While the findings were compelling, some of them were from quite small sample sizes.”

Regardless, the information here sheds light on the larger social, historical, financial and geographic concerns associated with racial segregation in Canada. As the report conveys, not only do Aboriginal people earn roughly 30 per cent less income than non-Aboriginals, but Metis, Inuit and non-status First Nations are currently ineligible for band council funding.

Moreover, men of colour in Canada are 24 per cent more likely to be unemployed when compared with non-racialized men, while women of colour are 48 percent more likely. These steep racial barriers in the job market are taking a financial toll not only on racialized families, but on many post-secondary students from those families.

Overall, food insecurity is evidently a multifaceted issue that involves various shifts in policy to fully resolve. Nearly 40 per cent of Canadian students are going hungry for an education, and it’s time now for municipal, provincial and federal governments to heed this call, to push for further research and investigation, to amend and create appropriate policies, and to show both students and all other food insecure Canadians that this issue is a priority.

Meal Exchange’s report provides four recommendations for policy change: that a frequent national food and housing security survey be implemented for those attending post-secondary; that the prospects for including students in a guaranteed annual income be examined; that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action on education for Aboriginal people be implemented; and that affordable housing be achieved through creating policies at local levels.

In her Master’s thesis, Jasmine Farahbakhsh suggests that provincial governments should also consider freezing tuition and mandatory fees, that the federal government enacts a universal student aid program to solidify consistency across the country, and that it consider subsidizing nutritious food to make it less expensive (similar to Canada’s federal Nutrition North Program). 

The longer we wait for policy change, the further the costs of living will push more hungry students toward food banks as main providers for food. UBC’s Taruni Singh reminds us of the food bank’s limited resources: “we’re not here to be an alternative to the grocery store, we’re just here to support people who are going through some tough times.”

Adam van der Zwan is a soon-to-be graduate in communication and political science at Simon Fraser University, with aims to pursue a Masters in Journalism. He’s worked as Opinions Editor at The Peak, at SFU’s Media Democracy Project, and advocates for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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Image: Flickr/dvs