Use of food banks by post-secondary students rising: report

A new report on hunger in Ontario says more and more university and college students are turning to food banks.

While the numbers are still low compared to other populations, students struggling with debt and trying to get established with full time work are an emerging group of users, according to the Hunger Report for 2013.

In an average month, over 370,000 Ontarians visit food banks—near record numbers— the report says.

‘There is still a huge stigma in using food assistance. People don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or weak.’- Ellen Xu, McMaster University food bank coordinator.

“They are children, seniors, people who depressed, aboriginal groups,” said Bill Laidlaw, executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks. “A new group that’s growing very quickly is post-secondary students at colleges and universities.”

The Hunger Report is an annual snapshot of hunger in the province captured by the Ontario Association for Food Banks. Released Monday, it shows the province is not making a dent in reducing the number of families relying on food banks.

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Post-secondary students only accounts for about one per cent of food bank users provincially, but the need for food banks among this population is growing fast enough for a specific mention in the Hunger Report.

“An issue with universities is they are perceived as highly maintained facilities,” said Ellen Xu, coordinator of McMaster University’s food bank. “People think [students] are privileged, and that’s not really true.”

Group to watch
The OAFB said this is a group to watch because the association sees more and more students citing loans and scholarships as their primary source of income. In rural Ontario, that percentage went from 0.2 to 1.2 in the past year. Recent graduates often find themselves with mounds of debt – an average of $37,000 according to the Canadian Federation of Students – and the challenge of finding a well-paying job.

Hamilton Food Share reported in March 2013, the same month the numbers from the Hunger Report were calculated, 1,067 post-secondary students used local off-campus food banks, said executive director Joanne Santucci.

“We’re so worried about young children who are learning and on the other end, there are students who have gone through school and done well,” she said. “There is more care needed on the other end.”

It’s coincidentally cities with universities that Laidlaw cites as being “much harder hit.”

“Windsor, London, Kingston, Hamilton,” he said. “They’ve really felt the pinch and those numbers have gone up considerably.”

At McMaster, Xu estimates the food bank helps just over 100 students a year – and need fluctuates from month to month – but she suspects many more students could benefit from the service.

“There is still a huge stigma in using food assistance,” she said. “People don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or weak.”

The McMaster food bank works anonymously for students and requests are made via email to verify a university address. Xu said she typically gets a few emails a month from people double-checking that their identity is protected.

Shifting clientele
Mohawk College’s food bank serves more than McMaster’s does. Ryan Chow, president of the student association, confirmed that 593 students used their bi-weekly food bank last year. Since September, 121 students have visited.

“We haven’t necessarily seen an increase, but a shift in clientele,” Chow said.

Anecdotally, Chow said more adult students with families are using the food bank opposed to younger students. Regardless, the need for an on-campus food bank is there.

“The need was voiced and that’s why it was established,” he said of the roughly six-year-old food bank.

The Hunger Report also shows that food bank users in 2013 are mostly women, seniors, aboriginal people or immigrants, and also a decrease of users from over 410,000 in March 2012 to 375,000 in March 2013.

“The number is down from about 25,000 from the previous year,” Laidlaw said, “but it’s still too much.”