Universities take steps to tackle food insecurity on campus

For four weeks during the fall semester at Lakehead University, a shuttle bus made the rounds from campus to several food stores, providing a convenient way for students to get their groceries. The pilot initiative came about following a series of workshops at Lakehead on barriers to food security convened by the national student-run charity Meal Exchange as part of its Students Feeding Change project.

The project is supported by the not-for-profit Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security founded by Maple Leaf Foods.

“At Lakehead, it was identified that the campus is situated quite far from any kind of grocery outlet,” said Merryn Maynard, knowledge mobilization manager at Meal Exchange. “Students would be walking upwards of 45 minutes to get from campus to a place where they could purchase food.”

In partnership with a local community organization and Lakehead’s student union, Meal Exchange organized the test run of the shuttle service, which is again operating in February and March. Similar programs exist on other campuses, often run as a free service of the students’ union.

Such services have proven popular among international students, who pay higher tuition fees than domestic students and are among several groups researchers have identified as being especially at risk of food insecurity while pursuing their studies. The majority of students who used the Lakehead shuttle in the fall were international students, said Ms. Maynard.

At Ryerson University, Meal Exchange is in early discussions with campus stakeholders to develop a food security initiative, which may include organizing a community meal-sharing program or providing affordable and healthy “grab-and-go” items, said Amanda Lin, vice-president, services and finance, of the Continuing Education Student Association of Ryerson, one of the campus groups involved.

Continuing education and part-time students at Ryerson are “often on the go, nine-to-five,” Ms. Lin explained. “They’re having to access on-the-go foods and paying a premium for that.” She also noted a need for access to culturally appropriate foods, which are generally harder to come by on campus.

Ryerson and Lakehead were two of five campuses – along with Brock University, Dalhousie University and the University of Calgary – to be surveyed as part of Meal Exchange’s 2017 Hungry for Knowledge report. Students were asked to report their level of food security based on a range of factors. Overall, the survey found that almost two out of five university students experienced some degree of food insecurity.

Factors that students identified as limiting the quality and quantity of their food included the cost of food (53 percent), tuition fees (51 percent) and housing costs (48 percent). Researchers have noted that financial barriers, including low income and a high and rising cost of living, are often more pervasive factors of food insecurity than lack of access to food.

“For a fairly long time, universities were places where the children of more affluent people ended up. It’s only been a generation and, in some cases not even that, that young people coming into universities are much more diverse socio-economically,” says Rachel Engler-Stringer, a community health professor and food studies researcher at the University of Saskatchewan. “I think universities have a responsibility to look at ways they might be able to reduce costs for students,” she said.

Dr. Engler-Stringer and her research team conducted their own survey of food insecurity at U of S in 2017. They found that the groups most overrepresented as food insecure were students who are living on their own outside of university housing, graduate students and international students.

“At U of S, there’s a fairly large proportion of graduate students who are international students, so I think it’s kind of difficult to untangle those two without doing a different type of study,” Dr. Engler-Stringer noted. The researchers also found some indication that Indigenous students have higher rates of food insecurity.

Barbara Parker, an assistant professor of sociology at Lakehead who is conducting a participatory research project on the issue, said food insecurity among students is indicative of a larger issue that isn’t confined to the student experience. “What we find is that students who are food insecure, it’s not temporary – it’s intergenerational,” she said.

This semester, Dr. Parker is using some research funds to provide food each week in a three-hour class that takes place off campus in the offices of a community organization that has a kitchen. Students contribute recipes, and the plan is to prepare some of those recipes in class and share food during discussions, she said. “Before this class, I’ve always brought in fruit, granola bars. … It’s not ideal; it doesn’t really address the systemic issue.”

Having a kitchen on campus that is accessible to students would be a great asset, said Dr. Parker, who conducted a survey in 2016 of Lakehead students who accessed the food bank. “One of the students said they hated it when profs wanted to have a potluck at the end of term because they didn’t have anything to contribute,” she said. “And I was guilty of that. … To ask students to provide something for a potluck was just really insensitive to the fact that some students might not be able to participate and feel left out.”