B.C. post-secondary students relying on food banks more than ever

VANCOUVER — More and more post-secondary students in B.C. depend on food banks to stay nourished.

If groceries are bagged and hauled off at the same rate for the remainder of the summer semester, the student-run food bank at the University of B.C. could hit its second straight 100-per-cent annual increase in visits, according to data gathered by the school’s Alma Mater Society.

The increasing demand on student food banks is not unique to UBC. At Simon Fraser University, students in need have requested 2,598 emergency grocery vouchers since 2013, according to the Simon Fraser Student Society.

Stephen, a PhD student at UBC’s faculty of medicine, is one of hundreds of students who rely on the AMS food bank.

“I had a perception about the types of people that would go to these food banks,” said Stephen, a Vancouver-based father of one, who requested The Sun not publish his last name because of the stigma he said existed around the issue.

“I started going in 2014, last summer, when my financial situation shifted unexpectedly and put me out a couple hundred dollars each month.”

Stephen explained that he had expected to qualify for an income supplement but because he is an international student, he was denied the support. That left him unable to cover his family’s expenses. It was while explaining the problem to a friend that he learned about the food bank at UBC. His friend, it turned out, already used the service himself.

Lofty rents and high tuition fees are primary reasons why students are turning to food banks, said Simka Marshall, the chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students – B.C.

“Since they have to pay so much for school, we’re finding that more and more students are having to work in order to cover their tuition fees and the cost of living,” Marshall said.

Many students are finding it difficult to find housing with reasonable rent near campuses, and even those with student loans and a job are finding it hard to pay their bills, she said.

The issue of affordability is one the federation is hearing about more and more, she said, adding that one way to combat student poverty is to make education more accessible by reducing tuition fees, which have risen by about 400 per cent between 1990 and 2010, according to the CFS.

Students in B.C. are now graduating with bachelor’s degrees with the third highest debts in the country, according to information compiled and released this week by Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, a non-profit organization.

While bachelor’s degree students leave post-secondary school in B.C. an average of $29,000 in debt, they pay the fourth lowest tuition of all provinces in the country. That suggests students in B.C. are needing to borrow more than most of their counterparts to cover other costs of living, such as food and housing.

As Jeff Schwartz, the executive director of Credit Counseling, said in a news release, reputation is important for those selecting a post-secondary school, but “from a financial standpoint, choosing the right province could save you a lot of money.”

Tuition increases have been limited to two per cent per annum, according to a statement from the Ministry of Advanced Education.

“Student budgets can be tight,” said the statement.

“Any student who is facing financial, emotional or physical hardship can reach out for assistance. The partners, volunteers and staff at UBC who are involved in the food bank program are to be commended for supporting students in need.”

With more than 760 student visits and counting, this school year has already set another record for UBC’s food bank, which started about a decade ago and has seen markedly increased traffic nearly every year since.

Ron Gorodetsky, a UBC student and AMS student services manager, is among those keeping the food bank running. He said local donors including Save-On-Foods and the UBC farm help keep the shelves stocked with food, hygiene products, diapers, baby formula and other essentials.

Students in need of food or supplies must apply to use the service. If approved, they can fill one bag with food six times per semester, or two bags each visit if they have family members to feed. There are always plenty of dry foods, such as instant noodles, granola bars, cereals and pasta.

The most frequent users of the service are older students and students with families, Gorodetsky said.

“There’s always going to be times when some people find it hard to make ends meet, especially when you’re studying and you have a family,” he said.

Meanwhile, students at SFU are heavily using its new emergency grocery voucher program. The school operated a physical location until Dec. 2013, but closed it due to low traffic; fewer than 100 students a semester were using the service, said Tim Rahilly, the associate vice-president of students at the university.

The new program has some key changes that may account for the stronger take-up by students. It has a major focus on confidentiality and allows students to buy the fresh food they want instead of choosing from a limited selection.

The emergency vouchers can be used at approved grocers in exchange for products, said Kathleen Yang, an SFU student and vice-president of external relations for the Simon Fraser Student Society. Perishable staples like meat, fresh produce and dairy products are the most common items purchased with the thousands of vouchers handed out to date, Yang said.

The issue of hunger on campus is one that has been acknowledged by SFU students, who voted overwhelmingly in a March referendum in favour of a new levy to help fund the grocery program.

“When we talk about the number of students facing food security issues, it’s clearly a major problem,” Yang said.


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