Tuition + rent + food = hard lesson for Toronto university students using food banks

Students feeding their minds at one of Toronto’s top universities are increasingly relying on the school's food bank to feed their stomachs. At Ryerson University, where tuition is between $7,000 and $11,000, a referendum is underway asking for a funding increase for the Good Food Centre.

As demand increases, Ryerson student referendum looking to secure funding for campus food bank

Claire Davis, 21, works at Ryerson University's Good Food Centre. The food bank is looking to secure annual funding with a $2.50 levy increase. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC )

Students feeding their minds at one of Toronto's universities are relying more and more on the school's food bank to feed their stomachs.

At Ryerson University, where tuition is between $7,000 and $11,000, a referendum is underway asking for a funding increase for the Good Food Centre.

The small food bank in the Ryerson Student Centre on Gould Street is stocked with donated canned food, rice, cereal, as well as milk, eggs, frozen meats and sometimes fresh produce.

"We run out of food a lot," Good Food Centre coordinator Claire Davis said in an interview. "Our services are severely under-funded."

Davis, 21, one of three part-time coordinators at the food bank, says each year more and more students are using the service.

Davis cites rising tuition as well as the soaring cost of rent in downtown Toronto as two major factors behind the increased demand.

Student hunger is a trend causing concern as CBC Toronto's annual holiday campaign to raise money for GTA food banks, Sounds of the Season, draws closer. 

According to staff, engineering students use the food bank the most (their tuition is the highest of all programs at more than $11,000).

"They're skipping meals, passing out in the class. Really serious things that people who are 18  to 21 shouldn't have to deal with," she said.

The centre also stocks baby food for students who have children.

The Good Food Centre, which currently has more than 600 members who visit approximately 3,000 times annually, is funded under the Ryerson Student Union budget. This year it got $24,900.

Kim Vaz, 30, says grocery stores in downtown Toronto are expensive and many Ryerson students are turning to the Good Food Centre food bank. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

Students are voting on a proposed $2.50 annual levy on full-time student tuition that would go directly towards the food bank.

If successful, it would secure an annual budget of more than $186,000, money that would go towards hiring full-time staff and ordering more food, among other improvements.

The referendum ballot is for both the Good Food Centre and the Ryerson Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line. The organizations would split a $5-per-semester tuition increase.

Hunger at other schools

Ryerson isn't the only school in the city dealing with student hunger. University of Toronto, York University, George Brown, Humber, and Seneca colleges all have food banks.

The 2016 study Hungry For Knowledge, by The Meal Exchange, found that nearly two-in-five post-secondary students in Canada experience some degree of "food insecurity."

Davis says this comes as a surprise to many people, who assume that students who can afford to pay for, or borrow money for, a post-secondary education should also be able to budget for groceries.

But she says many students rely on grants or loans to pay for tuition, are paying rent in an expensive city, and may not have much left over.

"Just because they can access education, doesn't mean they can eat." she said.

A campaign poster for the Good Food Centre at Ryerson University. Voting runs until Thursday. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

Some students using the food bank simply can't afford food, while others can't afford the right food.

The Good Food Centre tries to provide fresh and nutritious items whenever possible.

"We don't want students to be eating the same thing all the time because that's all they can afford. We want them to nourish their bodies so they can focus on school and live a better life because of that," Davis said.

The food bank has an "open door" policy and doesn't require students to show any proof of their need.

"The fact that most of us are paying about $7,000 a year to be here puts us all in a category," Kim Vaz, another coordinator, said in an interview.

The irony in asking students who can't afford food to pay more tuition in order to fund the food bank isn't lost on staff.

Davis wishes there were more support from the university or the provincial government.

"The solution shouldn't be taking more money from students. It should be more of a systemic solution, but this is all we have, so we're doing it," she said.


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.


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