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Food insecurity at U of T: From dining halls to food banks

Dining hall model implemented last year impacts affordability
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ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY
ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article mentions disordered eating. 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has become an increasing concern. According to a Statistics Canada study done in early May, almost 15 per cent of Canadians, or one in seven, said that they lived in a household that had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. PROOF, a U of T food insecurity policy research group, defines food insecurity as “the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.” 

On campus, students in U of T’s dining halls are seeing difficulties with food affordability due to new meal plan systems, and one U of T food bank is reporting that more people are accessing their services than ever before. 

Dining halls 

Last year, a group of Chestnut Residence and New College dons organized a one-day boycott of both dining halls. The boycott organizers, who also organized a student petition, aimed to voice concerns from students living at Chestnut and New College about the affordability of their dining halls. At the time, the dining halls moved from an all-you-can-eat model to a pay-per-weight model where students were required to pay for some food by its weight, and a pay-per-item system where students pay per individual item. 

At the time, U of T Food Services, which provides the food for both dining halls, said that the changes were made due to COVID-19 restrictions, which prevented the return of an all-you-can-eat model. It also made a number of changes in response to the criticism, including getting rid of the pay-per-weight model and reducing prices. 

Recently, The Varsity interviewed three Chestnut dons, some of whom were involved in last year’s strike. They said that while some of their concerns from last year were addressed, they’re still seeing high prices causing problems for students. While the pay-per-weight system has been entirely removed from Chestnut’s dining hall, the pay-per-item system is still in place, and the dons said that many students are quickly running out of funds in their meal plans. 

“We believe this model is going to be imposing food insecurity, or the conditions for food insecurity, on student populations,” said one of the dons, Mike Lawler, a PhD student at U of T in the Department of Geography.

The dons also pointed out a strict “regimentation of portions” where students needed to pay more money for additional side dishes and other extras. Another don, Doyun Kim, a Masters student in East Asian Studies, said that he’s been seeing students choosing to reduce the amount that they eat or choosing to eat at the dining hall less frequently because of its high prices. 

Samarth Nath, a second-year Rotman Commerce student living at Chestnut, expects to run out of money on his meal plan before the year is over. Nath said that meals are often so expensive that his meal plan funds are running out quickly. At times, he’s spent more than $40 for food in a single day. 

Food Services provides a budget calculator that estimates how much money students have to spend on meals with each meal plan. For the meal plan that Nath is on, he gets $5,250 in residence dining dollars, and he’s already down to $2,800 dining dollars. According to the budget calculator, he should be spending $27.63 a day for the year until finals period begins on April 8. 

Nath said that as a first-year student in Chestnut last year, his meal plan ran out about two weeks before the semester was over. He was able to continue eating for those two weeks by using friends’ leftover dining dollars. Since he was only at Chestnut for one semester in his first year, Nath is worried that he’ll run out of food even sooner this year.  

The dons also said that a number of students are on the opposite side of the spectrum with more dining funds than they will use throughout the year. The system doesn’t make it easy for them to transfer funds to friends or get their money back. 

Sarina Iannelli, a New College don who was also involved in the original strike, said that they have been seeing similar issues come up at the New College dining hall. Both the Chestnut and New College dining halls are run by U of T Food Services. Iannelli said that while there have been some improvements to dining, including more dining options, a lot of students were adding money to their accounts after finding that the meal plan they purchased wasn’t enough. Iannelli found that international students often ran out of funds more quickly. 

“International students spend so much money to be here, and then now all of a sudden there’s another expense because you have to add more money on top of your already existing meal plan. It’s gotta be beyond frustrating,” said Iannelli. 

The Chestnut dons who organized the strike created a Food Committee this year, aimed at collecting student experiences with dining and bringing them to U of T. However, Lawler said that the committee hasn’t been well advertised, and therefore hasn’t been very active. 

Similar issues surrounding the affordability of food have been brought up by students at Victoria College. The college’s dining hall, Burwash Dining Hall, now uses a ticketing system. Students entering the dining hall are given tickets for a certain number of entrées, sides, and other items, and they are restricted to eating as much as the tickets will get them. 

Rebecca Muscant, a first-year councillor for the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), has been speaking to students on behalf of the council to find out their concerns about the dining hall. 

She said that students have brought forward concerns about the prices in the dining hall. Through the meal plan, meals cost around $15, which is the same as they used to cost in previous years when Burwash Dining Hall used an all-you-can-eat buffet model. Muscant pointed out that by using this system, students are getting less food for the same amount of money. 

Students have also brought forward concerns about how the ticketing system can encourage disordered eating because the portions given to students are limited. “You’re only able to eat a limited amount of food and that discourages people from asking for extra,” said Muscant. “You’re not allowed to get more than your tickets will give you.”

Muscant has been hearing a number of other concerns from students, including concerns about sustainability. VUSAC is in the process of gathering data from surveys, focus groups, and student consultations on dining at Victoria College to bring to the administration. 

Lawler said that the university’s response to concerns about dining is always to point out financial aid options, which he said are not always easy to access

Food banks 

Recently, food banks have seen a huge bump in the number of people accessing them. Almost 600,000 people used food banks in Ontario between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 — the highest number of people since the Great Recession. 

Adam El-Masri, a recent U of T graduate, is one of the lead organizers of the UofT Emergency Food Bank, a food bank that opened up when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Due to public health measures, a number of campus food banks, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union food bank, had to close in 2020. 

The UofT Emergency Food Bank began its operations completely contactless due to the pandemic and has made itself available for anyone who identifies as a member of the U of T community. It offers food boxes through delivery, but also has a gift-card program which provides community members with gift cards for groceries. 

In an interview with The Varsity, El-Masri said that food insecurity has been a huge issue throughout the pandemic. In fact, he said that the number of people accessing the UofT Emergency Food Bank has increased this year compared to last year.

“What I think kind of scares me in the numbers is it pretty much touches everyone. We have undergrads, graduate students, both masters and PhD [students]. We have students from all age groups, we have students from pretty much every ethnic background, every other sort of equity-seeking group, students who are unemployed, partially employed, [and] fully employed students with and without dependents,” said El-Masri. 

According to demographics data provided to The Varsity by the UofT Emergency Food Bank, nearly 60 per cent of the students accessing the food bank identified as undergraduates, 23.8 per cent were graduate students, and 16.3 per cent identified as doctoral students. Most also responded that the food they were receiving would provide for three people other than themselves, and only 13.1 per cent responded that they would be the only person consuming the food. 

“There are a lot of people who are food-insecure and don’t realize they’re food-insecure,” said El-Masri. He said that universities can romanticize food insecurity, creating a harmful narrative that “[being] the poor starving student is kind of a rite of passage.” 

He did point out that the university provides a number of financial resources, though he noted that, for students who are experiencing food insecurity, it might be difficult to make time to access them. 

The Varsity has reached out to U of T Food Services for comment.