by Hannah Klemmensen, Junior Researcher

As has been the case for so many, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant acute hardship for many university students. In particular, the pandemic has brought to focus a severe and pressing issue across university campuses: food insecurity. As students have lost jobs and faced unexpected expenses, they have also faced the closure of campus food banks across Toronto universities, alongside rising prices and shorted hours of service at campus cafeterias. This confluence of factors has led many university students to be unable to access adequate amounts of quality food. Mirroring Canadian realities at large, low income, BIPOC, and international students have been especially impacted. Like many of the concerns the coronavirus has given attention to, this is far from a new issue, with campus food security a concern long before the pandemic.

Revealing a Preexisting Faultline: Canada’s hidden student food security problems

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly exacerbated the issue of campus food insecurity, it most certainly did not create it. Research from 2016 found that 40% Canadian of university students had experienced some form of food insecurity, translating to about 30 thousand students. 8% of students were identified as being severely food insecure, meaning they face persistent obstacles to maintaining an adequate diet.

Yet, campus food insecurity is a rarely discussed issue, largely omitted from policy reports, political talking points, or general knowledge. In part, this is because campus food security is hidden from official counts, as data on university students is often not adequately collected, and campus food banks may not send their data to be added to official government statistics. Moreover, as Suman Roy, executive director of the student food advocacy organization Meal Exchange, notes, student food security is often dismissed or romanticized. Suman still encounters policymakers and elected officials who buy into narratives that the ‘starving student’ is just part of the university experience, or who hold the belief that experiencing food insecurity during studies builds character and teaches students how to care for themselves and their finances. Yet, this ignores that food insecurity is a serious issue, linked to lower academic achievements and detrimental to one’s health.

Despite its obscurity, the fact remains that food insecurity exists on university campuses, a result of students being unable to afford and access quality food, an issue that predates the current acute crisis COVID-19 has brought.

Campus Action

Despite the systemic and acute food security problems being felt during the pandemic, universities have also been rallying to ensure their students and the broader community are being fed during these unprecedented times. From administrative programs to grassroots student initiatives, it is clear that campuses are a point of momentum for change, and have been vital in combating food insecurity, stepping up to care for their communities.

When the University of Toronto Saint George campus food bank was forced to shut due to the pandemic, many students were left with no support and even greater insecurity than before. This did not go unnoticed by a group of University of Toronto students and recent graduates who quickly worked to assemble the U of T Emergency Food Bank with help from the Engineers without Borders U of T Chapter. Adam El-Masri, one of the cofounders of the initiative, explained that the original campus food bank “sort of fell through a crack” and thus the group, considering the lack of action they saw around them as well as their position as organizers in other spaces, decided to help out as best they could. The Foodbank provides weekly deliveries of FoodShare’s Good Food Boxes to be delivered to students. Since initiating the program in late April 2020, the foodbank has delivered over 2600 food boxes and gift cards to over 425 student households. The organizers hope to expand their initiative into a more sustainable and holistic program, combining an on-campus food pantry with a delivery service to maximize their impact. As co-founder Sonam Vashisth pointed out, “so much of the student body hasn’t been tapped into that needs to be reached out to”. Part of this long-term goal has been the organization’s recent adoption of a “Feed the Student Movement” program, a food honoraria program to support students participating in online programming focused on social justice and equity. Aimed at limiting the prohibitive financial barrier for students to participate in justice movements, they have already supported dozens of students across 2 events with more support planned. Moreover, as a Good Food member of Community Food Centres Canada, the team is currently enrolled in a course through the Ryerson Institute for Change Leadership that works with food banks to “turn community into constituency” and effectively organize systemic change campaigns.

Just down the road, Ryerson University has stood out as a leader within the city, with the university itself coordinating free biweekly food boxes to students in need. The confidential service was set up to compensate for the closure of their campus food bank and is the only pandemic food response in the city to be funded by a university itself.

The administration at U of T Scarborough has also been active. In partnership with Global Medic and several city officials the C.A.R.E.S. (Collective Action and Response for Everyone in Scarborough) initiative. Running from April to August 2020, the project utilized the valuable resource of the university’s Highland Hall event centre; a physical space large enough to allow efficient yet socially distanced packing of food for distribution to local food banks and grassroots organizations. By repackaging bulk food items, particularly grains and legumes like rice, lentils, and split peas, in 500-gram bags for household distribution the project enabled cost-effective practical boxes to be sent to projects across Toronto, particularly focusing on grassroots groups in Scarborough and Durham.

CARES operated 5 days a week with the help of just under 160 volunteers. The project further coordinated the redeployment of City of Toronto and University of Toronto staff to aid in the initiative, as well as was able to hire three student workers through the Canadian Summer Jobs Program. Melanie Blackman, UTSC’s Community Partnerships Lead, was inspired by the fact that CARES had no problem finding engaged volunteers eager to help out, noting that this speaks to the university’s new mission of inclusivity, equity and community. Blackman was also proud of the strong community nature of the recipient partners in the initiative, allowing CARES to reach on the ground community initiatives that may not have received official sources of support during the pandemic. This highlights what Melanie called the ‘ecosystem’ approach of CARES, focused on leveraging and strengthening local connections and solidarity.

The student food advocacy organization Meal Exchange also began to shift its operations towards more direct food aid. Suman Roy noted that at the start of the pandemic, the top feedback they were getting from students they were in contact with was simply that they were going hungry, and that there was an urgent need for food in the present. As such, the organization began coordinating funding for student food boxes, gift cards, and other forms of emergency support. However, Suman emphasizes that these short-term solutions are not the ultimate goals of Meal Exchange, a sentiment echoed by all the organizers we were in contact with. As Roy puts it, we can “chase our tails” all day trying to organize food help on campuses, but will not eliminate the underlying issues which create the need for this immediate aid to begin with.

Beyond the Pandemic: Moving towards food security on campus

Through speaking to the inspiring organizers of campus food initiatives across the city, a shared sentiment became apparent: while these acute support programs are important, there is a need and an ambition to dig deeper by addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity on campus. This of course requires systemic changes, and in the turmoil of the last year many have begun to identify what these changes may be.

For Suman Roy, it’s about priorities. He notes that universities run food services as an ancillary service, “like parking”. This means that, despite food being a fundamental right in Canada, campus services must make a profit, or at least break even, a way of operating they wouldn’t dream of implementing for other key services like athletics. Similarly, the U of T Emergency Food Bank founders highlighted how important food supports such as food banks often face administrative barriers due to who is responsible for them which limits their success, with Adam highlighting how “when a student union or a political body, that has turnover on a yearly basis is responsible for an essential service, that essential service does not get treated in the same class as maybe other essential services, like our financial aid services, various library services, housing aid services, and so on.” The closure of campus food banks, as has occurred at the University of Toronto, is a case in point that this often leads essential food programs to become an afterthought, facing immense barriers that reach a breaking point during events such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The U of T Emergency Foodbank organizers also noted their hope to see these institution-level changes begin to be addressed on campus. They noted that for many universities there is little will to acknowledge the reality that the food system is not functioning. Doing so would require destigmatizing the realities of food insecurity, and inadequate actions universities have taken to address it. However, Adam urged that “if we [University of Toronto] are noted as one of the best universities in Canada, it would be nice to apply that reputation and that focus to social impact work or poverty alleviation work”. It is for this reason that their initiative takes an integrated approach, focusing on providing immediate food relief while also working towards addressing the systemic factors.

Moreover, while the valiant effort being seen across Toronto to fill the gaps left by campus food bank closures are worth celebrating, they also raise an important question. As Adam notes, “when a program like this closes, what are the accountability measures at play?” Despite access to food being a fundamental prerequisite for educating a student, the closure of services at universities during the pandemic shows that campus food services operate with little accountability protocols. This issue is also seen beyond emergency campus food support, dominating the general atmosphere around food on campus, with increasing numbers of students unimpressed by the lacklustre food and high prices.

A new Meal Exchange initiative shows one step towards breaking away from this culture, working to map the food policies, values, and initiatives occurring across Canadian universities. Roy hopes that this project will help campuses see the incredible initiatives some institutions are undertaking and be inspired to follow suit. He also notes that such a mapping system would be a valuable tool for university students, who often do not have a transparent picture of what food looks like on the campuses they are considering applying to, which could further pressure universities to value such services more highly.

Suman further says that the pandemic pushed Meal Exchange to recognize the importance of policy-level change. While conversations and support has grown in recent years for school food programs and food literacy initiatives, the conversation has not extended to universities. As such Meal Exchange has been working to combat this. They recently began working with Health Canada to develop a food guide that considers university students, which they further hope will help raise awareness of the important role school food can play in combating the spread of COVID-19. The initiative moreover facilitates an open dialogue between students and policymakers, allowing their voices and needs to be heard at a higher level.

Taking Stock

It is comforting to see the challenges that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic as simply the result of an acute crisis. However, as campus food insecurity demonstrates, these issues are not new, they have simply been amplified. When it comes to campus food insecurity, there are clear underlying issues of institutional priorities that have exacerbated student hunger, predating the pandemic. However, the dedicated work of university communities in Toronto to combat hunger, both in the immediate and longer terms, highlights the power of people to begin to address these issues head-on. There is hope that COVID-19 will be a catalyst for true change to begin to be seen, ensuring a just and sustainable food system for all.