Cash-strapped students face a hungry reality

It’s tough to feed the mind over a gnawing stomach. Yet, for a lot of students with financial struggles, hunger is a painful reality that strains both brain and body.

Photo by Augustine Ng

Among Ryerson students, almost one in 10 experience “extreme food access issues,” according to a 2016 report from Meal Exchange, which compiled surveys from five Canadian campuses over 16 months, based on 4,500 responses from students.
The report — comprising the largest national survey on the issue of food insecurity to date — shed light on the prevalence of hunger on campus, showing 39 per cent of students had trouble accessing nutritious food in the last 12 months.
The report blames inadequate access to healthy food on students financial constraints. Major barriers facing food insecure students include the cost of housing, food and tuition.
Usually, when the bills pile up, food is the first necessity people waive.
“There aren’t a lot of things that you can scrimp on, and because food comes in a wide range of prices, you can cut back to a certain extent — and load up on cheap calories — but that’s not a healthy way to go,” said Rena Mendleson, professor of nutrition at Ryerson’s School of Nutrition. “That can make you anemic,” she added.
The Meal Exchange study shows nearly one in four “food insecure” students reported that the problem has impacted their physical health.
Healthy eating is the keystone that all other aspects of mental and physical well- being rest upon, according to Mendleson. “Adequate diet, adequate sleep, adequate physical activity (affects the brain’s)  ability to learn, to remember things and express them,” she said. Twenty per cent of students in the Meal Exchange survey said trouble accessing nutritious food also compromised their mental health.
One pain associated with hunger is the wrenching bodily distress that an empty stomach can cause. Shame is yet another one.
“It’s incredibly isolating to be the one person that can’t afford to eat or to go out,” said Kim Vaz, the operations co-ordinator at the Good Food Centre (GFC), a food bank for the school’s staff and students. The GFC provided food relief to over 600 members, according to its 2014-2015 hunger report, the latest year for which numbers were made available.
Students and faculty who show campus ID receive 10 “points” a week to get food. Having dependants under 18 adds five additional points. One point gets:  a jar of peanut butter; pasta; a jar of pasta sauce; ground chicken; half a carton of eggs; a litre of milk; two boxes of Kraft Dinner. Adding potatoes, onions and carrots are usually four for a point, said Vaz. Last week, eight baby cucumbers cost a single point.
Ten points translates to about three days worth of food, Vaz estimates, although some crafty members can stretch it an extra day or two with some creative mix-and-match.
The GFC receives its weekly shipments from the Daily Bread Food Bank, the largest food bank in Canada. The content varies, but it usually includes 15 dozen eggs and 24 litres of milk, along with an assortment of canned goods, ground meats and jars of peanut butter. The GFC has to pay for the delivery cost: $15 weekly, plus a $275 annual fee, Vaz said.

Infographic by Anna Cianni

Each week, the GFC receives anywhere from 75 to 100 visits, Vaz estimates. At times when the eggs and milk run out, Vaz dips into the operating budget and asks Oakham Café to add a few extra cartons of egg and litres of milk to their orders.
Mendleson advises any belt-tightening student to look for friends that are “like-minded in terms of labour and cost.” Having potlucks or dinner groups instead of hitting bars can cut down on the price of going out. Strategic meal planning and shopping can also help, including buying in bulk with a group of friends, she suggests.
“It’s also useful to think about, ‘What are the cheapest fruits and vegetables you can get?’ Frozen ones are often cheaper, and fresher, and picked at the peak of their freshness, as compared to fresh fruits and vegetables, so there are many ways of getting those foods without having to get the freshest or the Whole Foods version,” Mendleson said.
Maleeha Alvi, a recent Ryerson graduate, had similar money problems that students face during her time as an engineering major. On the late nights during exam season when people don’t usually pack lunches, she said: “The moment you try to go outside and buy something, the cheapest food you’ll find is what, a sub? For six, seven dollars — and that’s not always cheap — it adds up.”
So together with a friend, Alvi came up with an app — set to release this spring — that aims to offer restaurant and baked goods at up to half off the original price, to keep the food from becoming waste.
Eatonomy, out of the Social Innovation Zone in Ryerson, echoes another Ryerson-based startup, Feedback. Launched in September, the app lets restaurants put up deep discounts during slow hours to encourage thrifty diners.
“Everyone needs groceries, and you know everyone goes out and buys them,” Alvi said. She says she set out with the goal to help “low income families, people like us — students — and people looking for good deals.”

Infographic by Anna Cianni

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