Content warning: This article mentions disordered eating.

Welcome to The Varsity’s Food Issue. 

This week, we’re featuring food-related content across all sections of the newspaper. From racialized people’s experiences of food in Features, to the lack of accessible kitchens in Comment, and the impacts of food on mental health in Science, it’s all about food. 

Food is a central component of student life at U of T. From the everyday experiences of U of T students to the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity, we can’t afford to overlook it. 

All eyes on food

When food is actually paid attention to, it’s often because there are accessibility barriers. 

Recently, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union has drawn backlash for including language regarding kosher food in its Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) policy. As it was originally passed, the policy included an exemption for kosher food providers that were not BDS-compliant, but only if an attempt had been made to source the food from a source that did not “normalize Israeli apartheid.” 

Though the union has since removed the language from the policy, it has not replaced it with any explicit protections for kosher food. Proactively protecting all dietary restrictions should be a priority for U of T and its constituent student unions. 

Similarly, all students are entitled to food that fulfills their needs — especially students that U of T is responsible for, such as the ones that live on residences. 

Last year, The Varsity reported on the concerning financial, mental, and physical implications of a new pay-per-item dining hall system that was implemented during the pandemic. The system has been implemented at Chestnut and New College residences. Students have reported that the pay-per-item system is too expensive, encourages disordered eating, and contributes to plastic waste. 

A year later, U of T hasn’t reverted to an all-you-can-eat dining hall model or made any significant changes. U of T’s reluctance to change the dining hall system — in spite of these well-documented problems — shows a disregard for students’ well-being. 

University students face disproportional food insecurity

Being a university student can be costly when factoring in textbook costs, housing prices, and tuition fees — especially for international students and students in formerly deregulated programs. However, university students — particularly graduate students — are also plagued with food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food security is a critical issue for university students across the country. According to a Maclean’s article, about 40 per cent of Canadian postsecondary students deal with food insecurity, compared to around 14.3 per cent of the general population.

Furthermore, food insecurity presents itself in a variety of ways: both the quantity and quality of accessible food pose issues for university students. When budgeting, students often view food spending as the one negotiable category amid necessary tuition and housing costs. Thus, when university students are in financial trouble or nearing the maximum amount of money they can spend, they may consider eating less before sacrificing their education and housing.

Similarly, students may opt for less nutritious and less expensive food, like instant ramen noodles and fast food. These food items may be cheap and filling, but they are high in sodium, which can lead to long-term health consequences like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Students are often told to buy unprocessed, fresh ingredients from the grocery store instead, but these items are often difficult for one-person households to use up. They’re also expensive, especially with the supply-chain problems this pandemic has caused. Moreover, there is a pervasive student culture in which students prioritize their grades over their physical and mental health. Some students even wear their sleep deprivation and toxic productivity as badges of honour.

Of course, students need to be more aware of their food consumption and must view eating with the same importance as breathing. They should research how to eat well and learn how to budget their time to allow themselves to cook or have a proper sit-down meal in their residence dining halls. 

However, not all of the blame for food insecurity can fall on the students themselves — far from it. Universities task themselves with educating the next generation of world leaders, scientists, and teachers. Education is more than providing the information that students need to succeed in their fields. 

If universities really want to provide the best education, they must create an environment conducive to learning, which includes not only physical spaces like lecture halls and residence buildings but also student feelings of safety and security.

Just like how universities cannot ask students to perform their best without secure housing and access to clean water, they also cannot adequately teach students who cannot eat properly. Universities can provide students with as many resources as they would like, but little substantial change will happen unless universities put themselves in university students’ shoes.

When schools are preparing to accept graduate students and provide financial aid, they should research the costs associated with living in cities, including but not limited to rent, water, electricity, groceries, and recreation. No, your students should not, cannot, and will not be eating, sleeping, and working at all times of day. On that note, time constraints should also be considered since proper, nutritious food requires not only financial resources but time.

Food in the long term

COVID-19 has put an increasing number of people in financially unstable situations. Especially near the beginning of the pandemic, many people around Toronto — and around Canada and the wider world — lost their jobs. In addition, many people around Toronto have recently faced additional economic pressures like rising housing costs.

All of this has been reflected in the rates of Ontarians currently experiencing food insecurity. Over the course of the pandemic, food banks across Toronto saw their attendance going up to record highs, and the number of people who needed to access food banks over the course of the year went up by 10 per cent between April 2020 and March 2021. 

Siu Mee Cheng, the interim executive director of Feed Ontario, a nonprofit organization that’s been measuring this increase, told the CBC that she doesn’t think we’re going to see a decrease in people having to access food banks anytime soon. At the same time, some food banks are finding it increasingly difficult to operate because of factors like rising rent prices.

The pandemic has put many people in newly food-insecure positions, and, as usual, its effects are being most acutely felt by people who are already financially vulnerable. However, fears about its effects on food security have spread, at various points, even to many in financially stable positions.

At many points during the pandemic, we saw waves of panic-buying as the threat of disrupted supply chains frightened people in many metropolitan areas. Panic-buying is a provably bad idea; not only does it make it more difficult for everyone to access the resources they need, but it often means, again, that people who are already vulnerable have even more trouble accessing necessities.

It’s an understandable response, though — the idea of food insecurity is very scary, and, for many people, it’s not something that they’ve had to consider very often before. The pandemic has felt — if you’ll excuse the expression — unprecedented, and so it’s presented challenges that many people had not prepared for.

But that’s something we need to change. The pandemic is not going to be the last large-scale crisis we see in our lifetimes that will carry the possibility of disrupting our access to food. As the climate crisis worsens, we’re likely to see more and more natural disasters, some of which will affect various parts of our food supply. Already, the recent flooding in BC has seen people in some areas hoarding groceries in fear of perceived shortages.

That can’t be our default response. We need to start preparing for future food crises — and not by stockpiling cans of chickpeas in panic bunkers.

Instead, we need to make our food systems more resilient. As a country, we should look into building more distributed supply networks, so any individual crisis can’t hit us as hard. We need to start building up crisis response systems, so that people hit by food crises — especially those who are already experiencing food insecurity — can still access food. As individuals, we should be educating ourselves and the people around us about what else we can do to prepare our communities for difficulties in accessing food.

Food is a universal part of the human experience. It’s something we interact with every day, and it’s something many of us take for granted. But food issues affect all of us, even if we aren’t paying attention to them. It’s high time we start treating them as the high-priority stories they are.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].