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‘You have people going hungry’ to fund post-sec education: SAMRU rep

Demand for food bank services for students and young people is causing concern for several post secondary institutions and the Calgary Food Bank. 

Earlier this week, the Students’ Union (SU) Campus Food Bank at the University of Calgary said they were seeing a huge increase in demand. Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 15, 83 students accessed the SU Campus Food Bank’s services. That’s a 46 per cent increase from the same period in 2018. Overall usage is also up year-over-year by more than 20 per cent, according to the SU.

For those who coordinate the SU Campus Food bank, the numbers are alarming.

SU Campus Food Bank coordinators Adrian Handy and Janice Jiang among dwindling food bank shelves. Photo by Gene Baines.

“We saw an increase of use over the summer, but we never expected we would be in this kind of need for non-perishable items by mid-September,” said Adrian Handy who, along with Janice Jiang, coordinates the SU Campus Food Bank.

Mount Royal University demand has doubled

That’s a situation Shereen Samuels, director of student services with the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU), can relate to.

Over the last few years, Samuels said the demand for food hampers has nearly doubled that of 2017. They gave out 299 hampers in 2017 and 550 so far in 2019.

“Education has become more expensive. Textbooks have become more expensive. Rent is expensive. So the one place where students actually have some choice about how much they spend is on food, sadly,” Samuels said.

“So you have people going hungry in order to fund their education. I think that’s a problem that’s increasing.”

The SAMRU program provides a variety of food support services, including a free breakfast program. An on-campus food and hygiene cupboard allows students to select their own food and products to cater to their needs. Students are not limited on the number of visitors per semester and are welcome to use the cupboard for their immediate family as well. 

SAMRU is also linked with the Calgary Food Bank to provide hampers for students. However, students are only eligible for up to seven hampers in a 12-month period with a minimum of 30 days between each request.

Samuels points to reduced stigma for the increase in demand is SAMRU’s internal programs.

“We don’t make people prove they’re in a tough spot. We don’t make them fill out a bunch of forms. It’s a less stigmatized process,” she said.

“All students have to do is come in and say that they’re hungry, and we give them a bag and they take what they need. We don’t tell them what they need, they just take what they need.”

SAIT creates new anonymous pickup option

At SAIT Students’ Association (SAITSA), students in need of emergency food relief can receive an immediate supply of up to one week’s worth of food. In terms of overall demand though, it’s actually gone down, according to Colleen Burnett, assistant manager of student experience.

“So our emergency food bags are actually down by about 35 per cent we’re seeing so far in September. With students coming back to school, they’re becoming more aware of our services. So we are seeing the number per day kind of go up so that’s good to see, because we want to help as many students as we possibly can,” she said.

Typically over the summer, SAITSA, SAMRU and SU say they see a decrease due to the amount of students on campus.

One thing Burnett said SAIT is hearing is that there’s a barrier accessing services. She said people generally feel ashamed or embarrassed because of the situation they’re in and that creates a hesitation to reach out.

As a result, SAITSA created an anonymous pickup option for students requesting an emergency food bag so there’s no face-to-face interaction. Burnett said so far 45 per cent of users are requesting that option.

“That’s kind of breaking down that barrier. I don’t think those students wouldn’t have reached out to us if we didn’t have this option,” she said.

“So we’re hoping to see that more students come to us. With help now that we have a little more anonymous aspects to it.”

In total, SAITSA has served around 151 students with their emergency food bags in the last year. For students who need more help, staff can help connect students with the Calgary Food Bank. 

Calgary Food Bank welcomes students

Overall, the Calgary Food Bank said they haven’t seen an increase in student or young people requesting their services. Shawna Ogston with the organization says that’s most likely due to students utilizing services at the post-secondary institution they attend.

However, the organization says they’ve been seeing a constant overall increase for people needing help.

“We know that Calgary’s still suffering, things are still tight, expenses are so high and so many people are telling us that they’ve had to just use up their resources for the last couple of years,” Ogston said.

“So maybe students are going back to re-educate themselves because the workforce is the way it is. When you got limited income, food is the only budget you can cut because you can’t cut your rent.”

Ogston said students and young people are also welcome to go to the Calgary Food Bank for help. 

“Especially if you’re stressed. If you’re trying to study and put food on the table oh my goodness you’re not thinking about your studies. So we want to make sure that students can feel comfortable coming to us or their campus’ services.”