New Brunswick

Off-campus St. Thomas University students struggle to buy nutritious food

Two social work students say St. Thomas University needs to do a better job helping its off-campus students deal with food insecurity and educating people about the issue.  

Research finds off-campus students giving up nutritious options for financial reasons

Andrew Ecker and Mike Stafford, in the bachelor of social work program at St. Thomas University, surveyed 212 of their fellow students about food security. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Two social work students say St. Thomas University needs to do a better job helping its off-campus students deal with food insecurity and educating people about the issue.  

As part of their research, Andrew Ecker and Mike Stafford surveyed more than 200 people on campus. They'll be presenting their findings at the Fredericton university's Social Action Fair on Thursday.

They found students living on campus didn't worry about having enough to eat because they are required to have meal cards.

But many students living off-campus — more than 60 per cent of those interviewed — face challenges. 

"It's when they leave, because they don't have that budgeting experience, they don't have that practical knowledge of where to go in an emergency," said Stafford. 

The survey found 75 per cent of the more than 130 students surveyed off-campus reported giving up nutritious options because of lack of money. Sixty per cent said they didn't know where to go for help. 

"You see people functioning, but they're suffering from anxiety and mental health issues because they can't access food," Stafford said. "They're ashamed."

Feel a stigma

Ecker said there needs to be more awareness and education around food security. Of the 212 students surveyed, 71 per cent said it was difficult to ask for help.

"It's just a matter of community building, and a matter of trying to maintain inclusion so students don't feel embarrassed, especially those that are vulnerable, but also those that are maybe moderately food insecure," said Ecker. 

"Sometimes they don't think they deserve to access certain services when they can."

One of the challenges they found was a lot of the possible solutions require more infrastructure, which isn't as easy at a small university like St. Thomas, where enrolment is about 2,000.

He said it made it difficult to compare their situation with other universities such as the University of New Brunswick. 

Ideas that interested the students included a campus community kitchen, a community garden, cooking classes and budgeting training.

Recommendations

Stafford said there isn't one solution to fix the problem because food security issues are so intertwined. Their recommendation to the university is to start a food security committee, which could start working on removing barriers for students. 

"If we have an ongoing presence at student union, they will hopefully take that onus and run with it with the university," said Ecker. 

"So we are laying the foundation and the groundwork, maybe even some validation for students that their voices are a little bit louder now." 

Ecker and Stafford hope students continue to research the topic, and interview more people dealing with food insecurity. But Stafford said this work won't do much good if the university doesn't act on the recommendation.

"Our research will make a difference here at St. Thomas if St. Thomas adopts it," he said.

STU spokesperson Jeffery Carleton said the university does offer a campus food bank and has offered courses on food security and budgeting but it will consider any recommendations from the research to improve things.

About the Author

Philip Drost is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick.

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