International Students and Food Insecurity

How severe is food insecurity at Lakehead?

By Sanjana Sharma, Staff Writer

The concept of food security originated in the 1970s, with regard to the availability of food globally. Author Jyotsna Sreenivasan says of food security today: “people who suffer from food insecurity do not have the means to provide themselves and their families with a nutritionally adequate diet at all times.”

It is not unknown to external organizations, Lakehead University administration, or students that food insecurity is a real issue on campus. Fortunately, initiatives are being constantly taken to help eliminate it and make healthy food accessible to everyone.

Hungry for Knowledge (HFK), a study conducted by the non-profit organization Meal Exchange, is the largest cross-campus study on student food insecurity in Canada, to date. The report collected data from post-secondary students regarding their financial access to food, the barriers that limit access, and the physical, emotional, and social impacts on youth. The findings suggest that food insecurity is a serious issue for post-secondary students in Canada, with nearly two in five (39%) of surveyed students experiencing some degree of food insecurity in the past year, including 8.3% who experience severe food insecurity.

The study was conducted in five universities: Brock, Dalhousie, Lakehead, Ryerson, and the University of Calgary. Since the aforementioned universities draw different student populations, HFK found different levels of food insecurity on each campus. Dalhousie University and Lakehead University experienced the highest rates of food insecurity (46%), and Lakehead University experienced the highest rate of severe food insecurity (14.7%).

Although many students face food insecurity to some degree because of factors like financial issues, lack of time or skill to prepare food, and lack of transportation to restaurants and/or grocery stores, HFK’s findings indicate that Indigenous students, racialized students, students living off campus, and students using government financial assistance programs “experience exceptionally high rates of food insecurity.”

The study also suggests that the cost of food (52.7%), tuition fees (51.2%), and housing costs (47.5%) were the most commonly self-reported contributors to food insecurity, which is realized by many students, especially international students. Shawna Holmes, who is the Campus Innovation Lead at Meal Exchange, told The Argus, “Lakehead stands out as the most food insecure, and it can be linked to the fact that Lakehead is situated in a more remote location, as compared to other universities that were studied. Lakehead has a very high proportion of international and Indigenous students. A contributing factor in international students facing food insecurity is the high tuition fee that they pay.”

International students are often heard commenting about problems that they face in finding food on campus that suits their needs. Some of them include limited access to traditional or culturally-safe food, lack of variety of food, lack of vegetarian and vegan options, and inadequate cafeteria/restaurant hours. Added to this, students who prefer cooking for themselves indicate that they either lack the skills to prepare their food, don’t get the time to go grocery shopping, or don’t have a way to commute to the stores.

It is vital that we understand the severity of these issues at Lakehead because they have major impacts on a student’s life when the student is forced to compromise on eating satisfactory, healthy food. According to HFK, “One in four (23.7%) food-insecure students reported that their physical health was affected by food insecurity, while slightly less (20.1%) reported that their mental health had been impacted.”

PC – Angela Setters – Flickr Creative Commons

Siddhant Gupta, who is a first-year Computer Science student and lives on campus, told The Argus that he dropped the meal plan in a month of opting for it because he prefers eating his traditional food. As a vegetarian, he commented on the food available on campus that “there are just a few options available for vegetarians, so I don’t get a variety to select from. On the meal plan, they did have a few options, but the food could be better.”

On being asked about challenges that he faced while cooking for himself, Gupta said: “Earlier, I used to just get ready-to-eat meals. Now, my roommates and I cook together. We also go grocery shopping together, which is not a big deal; but, time management becomes a problem sometimes.” He indicated that the biggest problem that he faces living on-campus is the traveling, particularly when it comes to carrying grocery bags: “Walking from Agora to Residence is hard.”

On the other hand, Xitong Wang, who is a Masters student in Mechanical Engineering, told The Argus that he cooks for himself because he enjoys it. He has previously worked as a cook, so he has the advantage of already possessing the skills.

To overcome food insecurity on campus, Lakehead University and organizations like Meal Exchange and Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy (TBAFG) are conducting extensive research and collaborating with partners to provide students with access to good food as well as educational workshops. There is a non-profit program, Thunder Bay Good Food Box Program, which provides quality, fresh, locally-produced food at a lower price than shopping at grocery stores.

At LU, the upper administration created the Lakehead University Student Food Security Advisory Group in 2016, which was prompted by the HFK study. “Peoples Potato” and the Food Bank are two free food services provided by Lakehead University Student Union that are available on campus.

Meal Exchange launched the Students Feeding Change (SFC) project in September 2017. With support from the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, Meal Exchange has been working to facilitate conversations needed to address student food insecurity on two unique campuses, Ryerson University in Toronto and Lakehead University.

At present, with support from various centres at Lakehead, SFC is running its second phase of the Grocery Bus Pilot, where students are taken to grocery stores like Walmart, Superstore, Thunder Bay Country Market, and Westfort Foods on a bus that runs in a loop from Agora to the stores. SFC also hosted its first budgeting workshop, “Eating Well on a Budget,” on February 22nd  and it will be held again on March 9th before the grocery bus. SFC is also planning to host a cooking workshop in the near future. Holmes commented that the response to their work at Lakehead has received a positive response so far.

Even though organizations are doing everything in their capacity to eradicate food insecurity at Lakehead, there are actions students can take on a personal level. In her opinion, Holmes says, “Make meal time important.” Realizing that international students don’t always have the time or space to cook, or just aren’t comfortable eating alone, Holmes suggests that students cook together: “Reach out. Share resources. Have dinner parties. Learn new things. Laugh together.”