Food insecurity among students rises every year. The largest study of campuses across Canada to date states that nearly 40 per cent of Canadian university students struggle with food insecurity.
Being food insecure means being uncertain of where and when your next meal will come from. For students, food insecurity due to insufficient finances has serious health and social impacts for individuals and it negatively impacts their studies. Between government cutbacks and the climbing cost of education, food and housing, students are stretching their paycheques and credit to make ends meet.
With the expectation that applicants have university degrees when entering the job market, many students feel that post-secondary school is the only way to advance in life. Creative careers are no exception, with jobs ranging from arts administrator, artist, curator, art director and animator all requiring a degree.
Expectations of Students
A large majority of students at risk are financially independent from their parents, with the most vulnerable being those on government or bank loans, international students and single parents. Alum Peter* (BFA, Visual Arts) shared that there’s a stereotype that international students like him are wealthy. “It creates an additional stigma when struggling,” shared Peter. “Especially in an environment where there’s pressure on students to buy additional materials to complete your studies.”
This expectation of wealth was also mentioned by Abby*, an alum (BMA, Animation) who attended Emily Carr as an international student from the US. “Many American students I knew were not able to financially go to a US school,” said Abby, referencing the high costs of tuition among American institutions. “A Canadian school was more viable but still left them very vulnerable, especially with the restrictions placed on how much you can work.”
On the expectations of material costs, alum Zhang Li* (BFA, Illustration) shared concerns on how it impacts food security. “The variety of backgrounds students come from is so diverse and not always reflected by expectations of projects,” she said. “I struggled keeping up with my wealthier peers and often got worse critiques in class because I had to use creative, cheap, or free materials to complete my projects. Not everyone can afford professional grade materials, especially when you’re not able to regularly buy groceries as is. When you’re embarrassed, your pride can influence you to make dangerous decisions, like choosing to buy supplies instead of food.”
It’s Hard to Ask for Help
When students face precariousness and vulnerability when it comes to food, they rarely speak up. “It’s kind of hard to let people know,” said Alex. “Maybe close friends, but your pride gets in the way.” Even bringing it up can be a struggle, as Peter points out.
“I made jokes about it, like it wasn’t as big of a deal as it really was,” said Peter. “I was often choosing to buy paint with the little money from my part time job over healthful or much food. I joked that I would go mad like Van Gogh from eating paint. It was a cry for help that went unanswered.”
Zhang Li also chimed in. “I was eligible for more bursaries and scholarships than some of my friends,” she said. “Getting one was like winning the lottery. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on being selected for one, and that isn’t the fault of the institution. There just aren’t enough to go around to every student that needs one. It’s hard to admit just how bad things are.”
Alum Andrew* (BMA, Film + Screen Arts) said sometimes friends would help silently. “They knew things were bad, but not to the extent they were,” said Andrew. “When you’re always skipping lunch with friends, or only eating instant ramen, it raises red flags. I was very lucky to have friends who would share healthier food with me.”
How Students Cope
As students lack the resources to pay for food, they often turn to other methods. “When I struggled with food, I would take home items that would be thrown out at my café job,” said alum Alex* (BDes, Communication Design). “That was the only way I could eat in fourth year.”
Zhang Li echoed that sentiment. “I worked for a very large coffee chain during my degree and even though it was full time, the cost of living in Vancouver meant I was often without food when factoring in the costs of my education,” said Zhang Li. “Even with domestic tuition fees, it’s hard to make ends meet as a student. I often took home food that would be thrown out – even though it was against company policy, which put my job at risk.”
Andrew said he would find discarded food behind grocery stores and bakeries. “It was humiliating,” said Andrew. “I was dumpster diving. It kept me fed, even though the food that’s retrievable is usually just bread which isn’t great when that’s all your diet is made up of. My program was so demanding that I couldn’t find time for a part time job and money from odd jobs only goes so far.”
The Impact of Food Insecurity
Food insecurity is more than hunger. If you’re hungry, you are experiencing food insecurity, but you can also experience food insecurity without being hungry. The Hunger for Knowledge study explains that “a person can experience food insecurity by reducing the quality of food they eat or relying on low cost foods in order to stretch food dollars. This person may not experience physical hunger, but they would experience food insecurity.”
An inability to access healthy food is a huge component of food insecurity among students. For many, that’s part of why they don’t come forward – they aren’t necessarily starving. Still, their diet is nutrient deficient and the barriers to healthy food are too high. “Ramen is cheaper than produce,” said Andrew. “It also has a longer shelf life, requires no additional ingredients, and fills you up. It’s hard to justify spending more money when you could risk that food going bad.”
Studies show that food-insecure students are more likely to have low energy levels and poor concentration. Food-insecure students also experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, disordered eating and suicidal thoughts than their food-secure peers. The impact of food insecurity is massive and goes beyond just hunger.
How Emily Cares Can Help
Emily Cares aims to address the issue of food insecurity by tackling the Five A’s of Food Security, as presented by the Hungry for Knowledge study:
- Availability: sufficient food for all peoples at all times
- Accessibility: physical and economic access to food for all at all times
- Adequacy: access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways
- Acceptability: access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people's dignity, self respect, or human rights
- Agency: the policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security
Emily Cares is open to any student dealing with food insecurity, and does not require them to go through the formal application processes of bursaries or scholarships. In collaboration with Counselling & Wellness, Emily Cares provides gift cards for local grocery stores, education on preparing inexpensive but healthy food, free food days, a communal garden for students to access produce grown on site, and a safe space for students dealing with the anxiety that comes with food insecurity.
*name has been changed and graduation year omitted to protect their privacy