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It's time to retire the "starving student" stereotype

January 15, 2019 by Kelsey Miki

Illustration of a student sitting with their face in a book looking sad next to an empty fridge
Illustrations by Hanna Barczyk

Food insecurity is a real problem on Canadian campuses—and it goes far deeper than this caricature lets on

Being a student is stressful academically, socially and, for many, financially. For those on their own for the first time, getting their priorities straight can be a challenge—deciding between an extra hour of studying or an extra hour of sleep is hard enough. Trying to choose between buying textbooks and buying dinner? That can be downright debilitating.

While the trope of the mac-’n-cheese-heavy “starving student” diet is all too familiar in popular culture (and, yes, a reality for many students), this caricature is anything but funny to those who, after covering exorbitant (and rising) tuition, housing and textbook costs, literally have nothing left to fill the fridge. The stereotype glosses over the very real problem of food insecurity, or inconsistent access to nutritious food due to financial uncertainty—something that affects 40 per cent of students on Canadian campuses.

“Food insecurity is quite unknown to many people,” says Rachel Gray, executive director of United Way-funded agency The Stop, a decades-old community-based organization in Toronto that strives to increase public access to nutritious food. “Understanding food insecurity issues in this country means really paying attention to poverty.”

According to Proof, a University of Toronto research project that investigates food insecurity in Canada, one in eight Canadian households are affected by this issue—meaning more than four million Canadians (including 1.15 million children) don’t have enough to eat and, as a consequence, have a higher risk of mental, physical and emotional health problems. For many, it’s nearly impossible to break the cycle of embedded and systemic poverty that brought them there: 60 per cent of food-insecure households are made up of working adults whose low wages are not—and may never be—sufficient to consistently put food on the table.

Illustration of two people carrying books

When it comes to university campuses—places of privilege and empowerment—it can be easy to miss the ways in which some students are struggling.

“When we think of higher education in Canada, we often don’t picture students needing to access a food bank because they don’t have enough money for food,” says Merryn Maynard, program and operations coordinator at Meal Exchange, a non-profit that tackles hunger on campus. “There is a lot of privilege associated with going to university and college, but this just doesn’t reflect who is actually accessing post-secondary education. As a result, students believe that this experience is a rite of passage as opposed to a concerning public health and social issue.”

This issue wasn’t getting much mainstream attention before Meal Exchange distributed the largest-ever national survey on food insecurity on post-secondary campuses. Inspired by their campus food bank volunteers, who noticed the influx of students accessing their services every day, the organization quickly saw the need for data.

“We realized that campus food banks across the country had been experiencing increasing student visits in the last several years, indicating a growing problem,” Maynard explains. “For us, the findings reflected what we had been hearing from students for years. Yet the sheer number of students experiencing food insecurity—particularly the most severe level, where students were having to skip meals due to lack of money for food (nearly one in 10 in our survey)—was shocking nonetheless.”

Food movement advocates often talk about food insecurity as a money problem, and this is true for post-secondary students. “While Canada is one of the most-educated countries on the planet, not everyone has equitable access to the finances needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle while they’re here,” says Maynard.

For Maheen Nazim, a University of Guelph-Humber student and vice-president of Ignite, the college’s student government, the results of the Meal Exchange survey came as no surprise. Students who don’t prioritize institutional costs (like tuition) aren’t able to complete their studies, which means they’re forced to make a difficult choice: Do I stop paying for my education, or do I go hungry?

Illustration of someone holding a cup of coffee

“It’s almost as if, to get through post-secondary education, students are expected to compromise a healthy lifestyle,” says Nazim. “Whether that rhetoric is built internally by the student or is something that institutions don’t address, being healthy is not at the forefront of a student’s thoughts. It’s as if success and health are completely separated, when they are very much connected.”

That’s why Nazim is excited to be a part of Humber’s new pay-what-you-can Soupbar, which opened this past October on Humber’s north campus. Ignite has created a place where students can get a healthy, organic soup for whatever change happens to be in their pockets in partnership with Humber and Feed It Forward. Soupbar is located in the LinX Lounge, a campus hub that has a pool table and ample seating. This was a deliberate choice; it helps make the service accessible and decreases the stigma often attached to these types of food services. In just three months, Soupbar has served more than 4,000 bowls of soup, giving students a healthy and affordable alternative to the poutine and pizza often seen in student centres—or to having no meal at all.

“The students are encouraging and promoting the service themselves,” says Nazim. “It’s been warmly received.”

Other campuses across Canada have similar programs, including Concordia University’s People’s Potato, which has been serving pay-what-you-can vegetarian soups since 1999. Dalhousie University’s Loaded Ladle, OCAD’s Hot Lunch, Simon Fraser’s Food Rescue and Carleton’s Food Centre are also working to combat the issue of food insecurity, one meal at a time.

A healthy diet improves one’s ability to learn and thrive, and all of these programs are working to change what’s considered the “norm” for post-secondary students. There are so many big choices for students to grapple with during this time—like “Should I pick up a second minor?” or “What do I want to do with my degree?” Figuring out where their next meal is coming from shouldn’t be one of them.

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