Food insecurity touches 38% of Acadia students, survey finds
Sociologist Lesley Frank surveys 1,030 students; many detail difficulties affording food
An Acadia University professor says students surviving on cheap food such as Kraft dinner and Mr. Noodles is not just a stereotype, but a painful reality that causes daily stress for many.
Sociologist Lesley Frank was overwhelmed with the feedback when 1,030 students at her Nova Scotia university responded to an email survey, with many adding details about the physical and emotional toll of not being able to afford food.
"They talked endlessly about how this was stressful for them on a day-to-day basis, not knowing if they should drop out or drop courses so they could work more," she said.
"It's the food budget that's considered elastic, it's what's leftover. And there ain't nothing leftover."
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Frank found 38.1 per cent of students experienced food insecurity in the past year, with close to half of students living off campus struggling to afford to eat.
"They say it's hard to study for a test when you're hungry, it's hard to focus on class when you had to skip breakfast," she said.
Food insecurity means access is "compromised" due to finances, Franks writes. It ranges from concerns about running out, to being forced to eat poor-quality products, to deprivation.
Students experiencing shame and isolation
Students who had jobs and loans were more likely to experience food insecurity, likely because they were working to afford tuition and didn't have financial support from families.
An ongoing perception that students are broke through school and go on to make more money contributes to the shame and isolation students experience, Frank found.
Some reported avoiding buying textbooks, selling belongings for extra cash, looking for events with free food and even stealing food. Only about one per cent of students reached out for help from food banks or local organizations.
"They have to tell their friends they can't afford to even go to Tim Hortons for a coffee. It's a major stress in their life."
Another troubling trend, she says, is more than half of students rely on credit cards to bridge the gap.
"It actually gets worse the longer they're in school," she said.
1 in 5 people experience food insecurity
The findings echo a report published last year that found Nova Scotia had the highest rate of food-insecure households in the country and that one in five people in Halifax experienced food insecurity.
Acadia doesn't have its own food bank, although there is one in Wolfville, but several campuses in Halifax do offer food banks.
At Dalhousie, a student-run co-operative, the Loaded Ladle, also serves free meals to 150 to 200 people three times a week at noontime.
"I've heard from students that a free meal really does make a big difference in their life," said Tess Pooran, the organization's volunteer co-ordinator.
"They're in classes from eight in the morning until after dinnertime and this might be the only meal they have during the day because they can't afford to eat out because food on campus is expensive."
High tuition, rent
She says there's still a stigma that prevents students from accessing many resources.
"The stereotypes we have that people are food insecure for some reason out of their own doing, that they just need to work harder," she said.
Frank is continuing her research, working in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan and Food Exchange programs. Prompted by her survey, 13 other schools are conducting their own.
She hopes the findings spur more discussion about the financial challenges students face — from rising tuition and the difficulties of finding well-paying summer jobs, to the ongoing issue of food prices and rent.
"If we truly want education to be open to everybody … we have a social responsibility," she said.
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