The head of the organization representing more than 100 provincial food banks has seen a “notable increase” in the number of post-secondary students experiencing food insecurity.
“We don’t have data on this, but anecdotally, we have heard from a number of post-secondary institutions regarding the increased demand for their support, particularly among international students,” Dan Huang-Taylor, executive director of Food Banks BC, said.
He made these comments in assessing a proposal from the BC Greens to help post-secondary students struggling with food security.
BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said “escalating costs of living, inflation and soaring tuition fees” are “pushing students to the brink” with international students, who are unable to work to help make ends meet, impacted the most.
Furstenau specifically called on the NDP government to establish a non-repayable food security grant program to support students facing financial hardships.
“We’ve heard stories of students resorting to raiding dumpsters, being turned away at food banks for being an international student,” she said. “There are students who haven’t eaten in days, sitting in class trying to learn.”
Huang-Taylor was supportive of the idea, at least in principle.
“While I don’t have all of the necessary information about this particular proposal, Food Banks BC is supportive of any systemic measures that may result in putting more money into the pockets of people facing hunger and food insecurity,” Huang-Taylor said.
A self-selecting, non-representative survey of 6,167 students on 13 targeted university campuses, including the University of Victoria, found that 56.8 per cent of students were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021, a sharp increase from the findings of a 2016 survey.
“Survey findings indicate that food insecurity continues to be a serious issue facing post-secondary students in Canada, which has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the study published by Meal Exchange.
By comparison, a 2021 study by Statistics Canada surveying the Canadian population pegged the prevalence of moderate or severe household food insecurity in 2021 at 11.2 per cent.
A 2023 academic study published in BMC Public Health comparing post-secondary students and non-students aged 19 to 30 found that food insecurity was prevalent among 15 per cent of full-time and 16.2 per cent of part-time students.
But the survey also found that the prevalence of food insecurity among non-students was 19.2 per cent. These findings led the authors to write that they “found no evidence that post-secondary students were disproportionately” affected by food insecurity.
“Compared to young adults who were not students, being a full-time post-secondary student was associated with significantly lower odds of food insecurity, even after taking into account individual characteristics and material circumstances,” they write.
Reflecting on the differences between their findings and the Meal Exchange findings, the authors of the 2023 study point to methodological differences.
The 2023 study also lacked data to examine food insecurity rates among marginalized groups and was conducted using data collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors also acknowledge the need to study the impact of broader post-secondary policies on food security.
B.C.’s ministry of post-secondary education released a statement that government recognizes what it calls the “affordability challenges” facing students, adding it expects post-secondary institutions to provide support for students through existing programs and services.
The statement said that government is taking additional actions. According to the ministry, more than 65,000 students have received over $105 million in funding through the BC Access Grant to help with costs such as tuition and living expenses. Government has also upped student financial aid by $151 million, invested $575 million in student housing over three years and eliminated tuition fee and eligible fees for former youth in care of all ages. The statement also notes that government ended interest payments on students loans among other cost-saving measures.
As for international students, the statement said that the ministry is working on ways to improve the experience of international students, adding the ministry is developing a framework for international education to reinforce and strengthen expectations around supports for international student in various areas including well-being and health.
“No one should have to choose between paying their bills or buying groceries,” the statement reads. “That’s why our government is continuing to take action to lower costs for people, including students.”