Hungry students flocking to campus food banks

A growing number of students are using special on-campus food banks to help keep up with the costs of rent, textbooks and tuition.

Some 40 per cent of Canadian students face food insecurity, says report

International student Chris Zhang started using Carleton University's Food Centre to make ends meet, and now he volunteers there. (CBC)

Chris Zhang made a lot of sacrifices when he left his home in China to study computer system engineering at Carleton University.

But there was an additional challenge he hadn't counted on: hunger.

"Starving, it's the worst," said Zhang, one of a growing number of international students making use of Carleton's Food Centre, the campus food bank.

"You can't concentrate when you're listening to the professor. You have no idea what they're talking about."

Students lack food security

Campus food banks are a relatively new phenomenon in Canada but they've swiftly become an important supplement for the student diet.

A recent survey commissioned by non-profit campus group The Meal Exchange found some 40 per cent of students attending Canadian universities and colleges lack food security — meaning that they're worried about where they're going to find their next meal, or forego healthy food to pay things like tuition fees.

The Meal Exchange says students have become the fastest-growing constituency accessing food banks.

Carleton's Food Centre now serves 110 clients a month, some of whom feed another person or a family on the food they receive. The centre stocks its shelves primarily through regular deliveries from the Ottawa Food Bank, but also through donations and food drives on campus.

Student volunteers Chris Zhang and Liam Harrington work together to fill out orders at the Carleton University Food Bank Centre. (CBC)

Zhang, a first-year student, said he often would find himself going without meals to cover the costs of textbooks, rent and international student tuition fees. He eventually became a regular patron of the food bank, and now gives back as a volunteer.

"Since I'm getting free food from these guys, I want to help out. I want to be the one helping," said Zhang.

Liam Harrington, a Carleton student who volunteers as program co-ordinator at the food bank, said they've started tracking the number of international students using the service.

"We see a large number of international students using the centre regularly," said Harrington. Many of those students pay as much as triple the fees Canadian students pay, he added. 

Not just international students

International students aren't the only clientele using campus food banks.

"Hunger affects all sorts of different people you would have never thought were food insecure," said Kathryn LeBlanc, who studies translation at the University of Ottawa while also volunteering at the university's Student Federation-run Food Bank.

LeBlanc said many students have no parental supports, while others are mature students who use the food bank — which can serve as many as 250 people a month — to feed entire families.

"I didn't really know before [I started volunteering] what the face of student poverty looked like," said LeBlanc, adding that she sees a direct relationship between rising student costs and the growing need for food bank services.

A recent survey found some 40 per cent of students report 'food insecurity.' (CBC)

Algonquin Food Cupboard

Algonquin College introduced its food bank in 2014 after surveying the need on campus.

Like the programs at Carleton and the U of O, Algonquin College's Food Cupboard is run by the student union. Unlike the others, it sustains itself through student fees and food drives and doesn't get regular donations from the Ottawa Food Bank.

Sky Sullivan, who works for the food cupboard, said she's seen usage increase from 30 people per month in the first year to 80 per month in 2016.

"I do think that without this, some students would be struggling," said Sullivan. "We hope the food bank helps students succeed in school."

Sky Sullivan, a co-ordinator at the Algonquin College Students' Association Food Cupboard, shows an almost empty fridge after a busy day handing out food. (CBC)