It’s had several names over the years, but the Good Food Centre has always held a special place in Ryerson’s food community. With over 2,500 visits in 2013 alone, the centre is pointing to an alarming trend in on-campus food bank use.
Providing students, staff and faculty free access to food since 1993, the Good Food Centre has recently re-launched from a community food bank and grown into an organization that is beginning to provide crucial information about the growing issue of food insecurity across Canada – both on and off campus.
At its third annual Good Food Festival event on Gould Street last week, there were plenty of local food vendors, food justice organizations and students lining up for fresh, cheap eats.
The goal of the street market was to facilitate a greater awareness about food security and sustainability.
Good Food Centre assistant Drew Silverthorn says he has seen the demand of the centre rise significantly in the past two years.
“Food insecurity is a bigger, more pervasive issue than a food bank can tackle,” he said. “I think a lot of students trudge through school really struggling and don’t have the sense of outrage that it shouldn’t be this hard to go to school.”
The Good Food Centre was originally called the Student Feedback program. In 1999, it was renamed the Community Food Room and has since expanded its services to include the operation of community gardens on campus, and selling an affordable “Good Food Box” filled with local, seasonal produce.
The centre has always been a place of refuge for students who need access to affordable food in a non-judgmental environment. However, others don’t see the food bank model as solving food insecurity.
Fiona Yeudall, associate professor at Ryerson’s school of nutrition and director of the Centre for Studies in Food Security, points out the bad side of food banks.
“Food banks usually tend to be made up of lower quality foods, and people are still hesitant to use them,” she said.
Now located in Room 209 of the Student Campus Centre and one of five other Ryerson Student Union (RSU) equity services, the Good Food Centre was re-named again in fall last year to reinforce its commitment to serving wholesome, nutritious foods to the Ryerson community.
Erica Scime, a recent Ryerson graduate, remembers the centre as a welcoming resource that helped her subsidize part of her grocery bill each week and provide her with healthy basics.
“I eat a vegan diet so I would get a lot of beans, lentils, grains, potatoes and onions,” she said. “It was great because I could get a lot of my staples there. Near the end of my time at Ryerson, they had a lot of fresh stuff like peppers, zucchini and eggplant.”
In recent years, the centre has begun to offer fresh produce in conjunction with its community gardens and through deliveries from the Daily Bread Food Bank, the largest food bank provider in the GTA.
However, Silverthorn points out that donations aren’t always enough.
“I think RU Eats does a phenomenal job of providing nutritious, sustainable and healthy food,” he said. “I do wish the university would take more concern with student food insecurity because our numbers have increased at the food bank.”
Charitable organization Meal Exchange was one of the vendors at the Good Food Festival. The organization works with campus food banks across Canada to help raise awareness of food insecurity among post-secondary students.
“We’re seeing poverty finding a place on campus more and more,” said Michael Waglay, program coordinator at Meal Exchange.
“In 1991, the first food bank opened at the University of Alberta. Now it’s commonplace. There’s story after story of increasing food bank usage, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. People also stay away because of shame and limited hours.”
“Unfortunately there’s so much stigma associated in using food banks like poverty and homelessness and that’s not always the case,” said Scime. “For me, it really made a big difference in my budget.”
Meal Exchange had a small part in helping Silverthorn put together a study of food insecurity in Ryerson campus. The Good Food Centre released their first Hunger Report last year, which tracked over 400 users and found that students who paid higher tuition fees — such as those taking engineering — used the food bank more.
“Student organizations, faculty and the administration all have their role in fighting hunger on campus,” said Waglay. “Rising tuition fees are the main problem.”
“There is some investment in food on campus, but the university and the government in turn should be more responsible,” said Yeudall. “If you want to eliminate the problem, you have to make it more affordable to come to school.”When it comes to food insecurity, Silverthorn recognizes the limitations of what food banks alone can do, and notes that the re-branding of the centre is the beginning of positive, long-term change.
“I think it’s important for us not only to been seen as a food bank but also an organization that fights for justice and accessibility,” he said.