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Op-ed: How we’re tackling student food insecurity through COVID-19

U of T Emergency Foodbank members on the systemic nature of poverty
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

As I, Adam, reflect on my journey as an undergraduate student and tabulate the cost and the value of a paper certificate, I cannot help but believe it could be achieved at a dramatically lower cost. 

The academic year of 2014–2015 was by far my most expensive session, not because of the price of a deregulated-fee program, but because of the sacrifices required on my part to make ends meet while maintaining a satisfactory academic standard. In the course of three years, I was working four jobs, studying part time, and registering for accessibility services due to the onset of chronic illness and languishing mental health. 

The root of my problem was financial hardship and the ensuing series of barriers created by ‘financial need.’ My experience is not unique to my many peers with similar stories of ‘overcoming adversity.’ What differs, however, is how we’re forced to address the problems imposed on us and whether or not we have ‘the resilience’ to do so. 

Some students accrue insurmountable debt. Some drop out. Some experience homelessness, and some choose to skip meals because it’s relatively easier to do so. Food budgets are often treated as a flexible expense, giving priority to costs such as shelter and utilities, which contributes to food insecurity.

When thinking of food insecurity, we mistakenly carry the assumption that, in order to be food insecure, one must have limited access to food. Food insecurity manifests itself in many forms, including barriers to nutritious food. Student food insecurity exists in the shadows, failing to receive the attention it requires.

We all know or are a student who has skipped meals or has lived off ramen to cut costs. While we may make light of this reality, deeming it an essential part of student living, no person should have to compromise their health to be able to afford their basic needs. When we have students choosing between lunch and their textbooks, we have a problem.

The characterization of the student experience as ‘chronic lack of sleep coupled with microwavable noodles’ may be accurate, but it is far from humorous. As students having  experienced this reality firsthand, we were compelled to take action.

Our initiative, the UofT Emergency Foodbank, formed when a group of University of Toronto students across organizations came together to develop innovative strategies for poverty alleviation in our community. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified an existing crisis in the student population — food insecurity. This pushed us to address an immediate need and create a contactless service that delivers free nutritious produce to students’ doorsteps.

Through our pool of resources from Engineers Without Borders, the Trek for Teens Foundation, the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, Canadian Union of Public Employees 3902, and the School of Cities, we were able to secure and maintain a partnership with FoodShare to run our program. 

Originally developed as a stopgap measure to support the social safety net, it has since grown into a wide-reaching advocacy initiative. We received an overwhelming demand and recognized that the number of students struggling was greater than we anticipated. 

That being said, food insecurity within postsecondary institutions is not novel and did not emerge as an offset of the pandemic, but rather existed long before anyone was looking. 

In developing the initiative, we realized early on that our understanding of who was impacted by food insecurity at the institution was mired by a lack of demographic data. While food insecurity is well-studied in Canada, there is little data detailing food insecurity among students at U of T. Data supports our work in a variety of ways. 

First, it allows us to make informed decisions to improve our services based on things like locations, reported access barriers, and repeat usage. Second, it paints a comprehensive picture of the intersectional identities that may allow us to tie the issue to larger societal inequities. Lastly, it is a necessary evil in demonstrating to various organizations and decision-makers that the highest ranking postsecondary institution in Canada is not immune to the impact poverty has on its students.

While we encourage you to look at a sample of specific data points we’ve collected, our most striking observation is that this problem affects students in nearly every discipline and program — undergraduate and graduate — at the university. 

This unfortunate reality is unsurprising when you consider that students are juggling academic stressors, financial hardships, mental health concerns, and life outside of university. Food insecurity does not exist independently, but is rather a symptom of a lack of resources. Providing subsidized food merely addresses an immediate need. 

Tackling the systemic nature of poverty requires restructuring how we approach our student-facing services. This is a cyclical reality where lack of economic security negatively influences our health, and by consequence, our academic performance. It is time to recognize the privilege that underpins academic excellence and acknowledge the urgent need to create an equitable environment for all students.  

Postsecondary institutions are, in a sense, microcosms of our society at large. We have struggles co-existing with privilege, and we have insecurities that we can institutionally mitigate — if we take a stance. The truth is, poverty has affected many of us in different ways, whether we choose to recognize its existence on campus or not. 

Somewhere, there is a student who has skipped their last two meals and will be assessed regardless of their circumstances. So we must ask ourselves, what are grades and academic accomplishments really worth in a world where we compete against those who lack the basic necessities? 

Adam El-Masri is a fourth-year Indigenous studies and computer science student at University College. Amaial Mullick is a recent political science and bioethics graduate from St. Michael’s College. They are both part of a team of project organizers for the UofT Emergency Foodbank.