Western students respond to food insecurity via Google Doc

Call it a food bank by cloud computing. Students at Western University have developed a completely anonymous version of the food bank using Google docs, lockers and totes bags.

Hungry students can access lockers full of food through '100 per cent anonymous' online system

Pearl Wang is the food support services coordinator for Western's University Student Council. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

Call it a food bank by cloud computing.

Students at Western University have developed a completely anonymous food bank using Google Docs, lockers and totes bags.

It works like this: hungry students can fill out a Google doc with their name, Western email and a list of requested items.

When they submit the doc, an algorithm wipes out the student's name, said Pearl Wang, who oversees the program as food support services coordinator for the university student council. 

A volunteer from the food support program then fills up a tote bag with the student's requested items and leaves it in a designated locker.

Later, the student gets an email with the locker combination, and has 48 hours to pick up their food. Students can come in at any time of day or night, because the University Community Centre never closes.

A row of lockers at the University Community Centre. The lockers used by the food support program are indistinguishable from any other locker. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

There is also a hard copy version of the food support form, and a more traditional food bank space that opened in the UCC this year.

But the Google doc, which was introduced in January, is by far the most popular option, said Wang.

From September 2016 until now, the food support services program has delivered 264 hampers through Google docs, and 12 through hard copy forms and drop-ins.

"Some people are uncomfortable with disclosing some of the problems they have in terms of not having enough funds for food or not having a reliable access to food, so it definitely helps with the traffic flow," said Wang.

'We're not spending money on avocado spread'

Nour Alideeb with the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario says food insecurity is a problem on campuses across the province. (Submitted)

Hungry students aren't just a problem at Western, according to Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students.

She said the organization has seen food insecurity increase in every corner of the province, from London to northern Ontario.

And she said it's not happening because students are bad at budgeting.

"We're not spending our money on avocado spread for our toast. There's a number of things that students are paying for," said Alideeb, who noted that students often have to pay for tuition and textbooks on top of basic necessities like food and housing.

"The same responsibilities that other folks have, like rent, like putting food on the table, like paying for necessities. Our students are doing the same, and the fact is that access to good quality food is really expensive to people."

'Times have changed'

A typical food hamper distributed by the Western food support services program. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

Back at the Western food support centre, Pearl Wang highlighted similar concerns around the costs associated with being a student.

"Tuition and housing costs are on the rise, so I think it's very easy to dismiss, 'Oh being a student is so much fun,' but at the same time, times have changed."

Wang said that as long as the food support program has funding, she wants students to know they can always get a bit of help with their groceries.

"I think having that just makes them feel supported and that way they can focus more on their academia."

Sounds of the Season is our month-long campaign in support of the London Food Bank. We're raising money throughout December, and hosting two live shows Dec. 1 and 12.

Join the conversation and follow along throughout Sounds of the Season in the month of December by tagging @cbclondon and using the hashtag #cbcsotsont.