Food insecurity has devastating impacts on students’ health and well-being at Western. As we explored in the first blog of this series, Food Insecurity Affects Us All: A 360 Degree View of the Issues, food insecurity exists across the London community and beyond, but the public is often unaware of the depth of this issue among university students. Many might assume that students in higher education are removed from issues related to poverty, such as food insecurity. I explored the issue further, speaking with student leaders at Western. I was curious about the ways myths fuel stigma related to food and financial circumstances of Western’s students.
Food Support Services Coordinator at Western’s University Students’ Council (USC), Jenna Lam told me, “It’s hard to have daily functioning when you do not have an adequate supply of nutritious foods, which can have a huge impact on students’ mental health, as well as academic performance.”
Kesavi Kanagasabai, the Society of Graduate Students (SOGS) Vice President and Student Services executive elaborated, “There is a direct correlation on mental and physical well-being and the lack of adequate food/nutrients. This is then rippled into social and behavioral aspects of life. Whether it be feeling insecure, acknowledging and sharing it with your peers, this affects the triad of mental, physical and social well-being and creates this continuous negative feedback loop unless addressed at the root. As graduate students, they are exposed to complex environments through their research, teaching, and community involvements where this triad is further amplified. Furthermore, with identifying as being food insecure this makes us question whether students are dismissing their health as well, such as avoiding mental and physical check-ups/medication due to the increasing cost of services.”
Food insecurity on post-secondary campuses has been a hidden problem. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unstable economy, and sharply rising inflation rates are further contributing to the growing issue of food insecurity among university students.
The infographic below from the fall of 2022 shows results of a survey of Western graduate students, indicating that 44% of respondents experience food insecurity. You can read the full report on the SOGS website.
Image from https://sogs.ca/news/
“Food insecurity is a systemic issue. One thing that people don’t tend to realize is that income inequality is a huge issue tied to food insecurity and a lot of times this isn’t really talked about in the media. It’s important that we’re not just focused on food charity necessarily but also things like financial needs for students, which is intertwined with food insecurity” – Jenna Lam, Western USC Food Support Services Coordinator
While low income is the proximate cause of food insecurity, looking beneath the surface reveals it as a complex interplay of political, economic, institutional, and cultural factors.
“Students from lower socioeconomic status, people that live with disabilities, marginalized communities and international students are hit the hardest with food insecurity, especially those with dependents” -Kesavi Kanagasabai
“International students are often misinformed about the cost of living in Canada, especially due to the way that offer letters are sent out. – Kevin Moore
“Food insecurity is a larger issue of people not being able to understand the complexity and intersectionality of privilege. There are so many unique situations that we see come through our office…There are so many little factors that feed into someone’s situation of being food insecure beyond income”Kevin Moore, SOGS VP academic
Western’s USC advocates for undergraduate students experiencing food insecurity. Since opening in 2017, USC’s Food Hamper programs try to fill a gap between student needs and their resources. Students can confidentially sign-up online and pick up a food hamper in a locker in the basement of the University Community Centre. Volunteer program staff report that the digital Food Hamper is a highly accessed program as it aims to protect Western students’ dignity – the anonymous format reduces experiences of shame and embarrassment. From September 1, 2022 to March 15, 2023, there have been a total of 585 food hampers and 20 food gift cards distributed with 1122 students dropping into the USC Food Bank.
“Working in the food bank, I’ve noticed that there is a significant number of students who still feel stigma. A lot of people are nervous about food insecurity and because of that, the USC food bank works hard to reiterate the words ‘safe space’ to students, to ensure that students feel comfortable coming into the food bank”. – Jenna Lam
SOGS at Western University launched a food bank in 2017 for graduate students, specifically for those not earning an income from teaching. In the 2022/23 academic year so far, the program has served approximately 516 students.
Cameron Cawston, VP Student Support and Programming said that food banks in Ontario and across Canada are accessed more frequently than before indicating that the need extends beyond campus, into the community. Cawston also added that food insecurity isn’t a new problem, it’s just one that’s finally being talked about. “Food insecurity is not new to post-secondary students, rather this is the beginning of an active conversation about this issue. Just because we’re having conversations about food insecurity, doesn’t mean that it is a brand-new issue”
We need a coordinated response across various sectors and members
“It’s important that systems work together”USC’s Jenna Lam
I would like to thank Cameron Cawston & Jenna Lam from USC Food Support Services and Kevin Moore & Kesavi Kanagasabai from SOGS, for taking the time to share their perspectives of food insecurity on campus, which helped to cultivate awareness on this increasingly prevalent issue.
Next in the series, we will look at community and system level solutions to food insecurity.
Written by Samantha Campanella
The Western USC website has information about food support services https://westernusc.ca/services/food-support-services/
The Western SOGS website has information about financial aid programs https://sogs.ca/about/
A news media article covered the increased requests from students in November 2022 https://globalnews.ca/news/9282855/western-university-food-bank/
The SOGS website has results of the Housing and Food Insecurity Survey https://sogs.ca/surveys/
This series was developed by Samantha Campanella and Hooria Haider, Western University, Health Sciences Students, Community Engaged Learning placement with CRHESI. Christine Garinger, CRHESI Coordinator, was series editor.