I work at a campus food bank, which means that I spend a lot of my days giving baskets of non-perishables to students who can't afford to eat. After witnessing the long lines at the food bank firsthand, I now have a deeper understanding of what food insecurity really looks like for Canadian students.
When university students experience financial difficulties, they are often joked about as young adults subsisting off of coffee and ramen. In reality, students are far from a homogenous group; they can experience both uplifting privilege and crushing poverty. According to Meal Exchange, a national organization that supports college food banks, 40 percent of Canadian university students have experienced food insecurity. As a result, many student unions have started running their own food banks.
My food bank is tucked away in a basement at the University of Ottawa. The food bank, which is entirely run by students, feeds 300 to 400 clients per month. The service relies on donations from local bakeries, grocery stores, the Ottawa Food Bank's distribution program, as well as good ol' fashioned food drives.
Anthony, a 23-year old math student, recently started visiting the food bank after his financial situation became increasingly precarious. He once told me about losing thousands of dollars to an exploitative and illegal employer.
"When you're poor and depressed, any bad news about money will ruin your day," he told me. "Things that seem small, such as losing a bit of cash or discovering a $50 discrepancy in your paycheque, can have a huge impact on your well-being. That $50 could buy a week's worth of groceries."
Anthony told me that he is constantly worried about his finances. "I stress over money all of the time," he said. "I wish that people could openly speak about the hardships they experience in university. Everyone hides their depression and no one talks about being unable to afford food."
Anthony added that he never intended to use the food bank, because he always thought that he wasn't "poor enough to need handouts."
"You always want to be the person donating to the food bank, as opposed to the one needing help," he said.
A man in his mid-40's who is a regular popped into the room with a basket full of bread, canned chickpeas, and Macintosh apples. He cheerfully introduced himself as Mohammed and agreed to speak about his relationship with the food bank, mentioning that his wife and three kids are grateful for the extra food.
Mohammed explained that, due to the unpredictable nature of donations, the shelves of the food bank oscillate between barren and overflowing. On some days, he may look for milk for his kids but return home empty handed. On other days, the food bank is comically overstuffed, and he leaves with more food than he can carry. His characterization of the food bank sounds just about right; sometimes I feel proud to give away our abundance of food but I am often embarrassed by our half-empty shelves.
When asked how he feels about using the food bank, Mohammed replied with exclusively cheerful comments. "I have a very philosophical approach to life," he said. "Yes, I encounter difficulties, but that is the point of living, isn't it?"
In fact, many of my clients are student-parents. The food bank accounts for students with dependents via an allocation system, which grants individuals with families a larger amount of food. In addition, there is a cabinet filled with baby supplies, nestled into the back of the stockroom.
When asked about the financial stress faced by student parents, Mohammed responded positively.
"Why would I be afraid of my reality, my present, or my future?" he said. "I have beautiful children, and visiting the food bank is just another mundane aspect of my life. The food bank has the products that I need, and therefore, I need the food bank."
Anthony, however, held a different perspective on his family matters. He added that he does not speak to his relatives about his finances. "It's hard to discuss things like relying on a food bank. Growing up, my family was very proud about being able to support themselves. They believe in meritocratic independence—the idea that you can feed yourself if you work hard enough. However, this is not always the case in 2017."
The youngest student in the room, Sarah, told me about her experience with the food bank. "When I visited for the first time, I was a first year student who lived on campus. I had a nearly empty bank account."
"I never thought that I would need to rely on a food bank. When I went to university, I knew that it would be tough, but I thought that universities and governments had measures in place to provide students with their most basic needs, such as food and shelter. In reality, the poor are failed by the system."
Anthony ended our conversation by stressing that no one can gauge a person's economic stability simply by looking at them. "A student might have their hours cut at work, lose their OSAP, or run into a financial emergency. Young people who are financially insecure tend to be desperate, and they get scammed all the time by their employers and landlords."
I think that Anthony is right. Unfortunately, college campuses are largely devoid of conversations on food security. Perhaps eventually, students will not have to chose between buying textbooks and putting food on the table. Until then, I'll keep doling out canned chickpeas to college kids like me.
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