Food banks and services at Alberta post-secondary institutions saw approximately double the demand for food from students this academic year, compared to the previous year.
The University of Calgary’s Students’ Union Food Bank completed 526 requests for food hampers in the 2022-2023 academic year, up from a total of 227 the year prior.
In Edmonton, Erin O’Neil, executive director of the Campus Food Bank at the University of Alberta, said they used to see around 300 visitors per month in early 2022. But now, she said they’re serving approximately 1,000 clients monthly.
“This year has been quite a shock,” said O’Neil. “The last school year from September 2022 to April 2023, we saw more than double the demand of the previous year.”
“It’s just been difficult all around. The tuition is going up. There’s no housing supply. Food prices are constantly increasing. So all these factors play into what happens to students when they decide to cut back,” said Ermia Rezaei-Afsah, students’ union vice president at the University of Calgary.
“One of the first things that goes when … they’re trying to afford next month’s rent or the gas bill is they cut back on meals — they cut back on their food.”
International and graduate students hit hardest
A recent survey from the Campus Food Bank at the University of Alberta showed that approximately 70 per cent of its clientele are international students, and 68 per cent are graduate students. O’Neil said these two demographics often overlap.
Similarly, at the University of Calgary, international students make up more than 75 per cent of the student union’s food bank users, according to Rezaei-Afsah.
For international students, in addition to the rising cost of living, he said “tuition has gone up for them exponentially compared to domestic students.” In just the last year, international undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Calgary saw up to a 10-per-cent increase in their tuition fees.
And for the students who save up and budget for living in Canada, their currency back home is often devalued, posing yet another hurdle, O’Neil said.
“Last fall we also found that currency exchange really affected some of our international students and so they weren’t able to afford what they had planned to be able to afford here.”
The cost of living in Canada
Fernanda Talarico, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, used the Campus Food Bank for at least two years after she emigrated from Brazil with her husband in 2019.
“When I first arrived here in Canada — we students don’t receive that much money — so we were lost,” Talarico said. “It was hard for us to pay the bills and everything.”
Living away from home and on their own for the first time as adults, Talarico said she and her partner didn’t know where to begin with starting a new life in Canada. From renting a home to buying a phone, the move came with new expenses.
After hearing about the Campus Food Bank from a friend, Talarico and her husband would visit the bank every two weeks and receive hampers of food with essentials like rice, pasta and tomato sauce. She said the hampers provided an assurance that they’d have the basic food they need.
“Now that we both got scholarships and [my husband] graduated and got a job, fortunately we don’t need it anymore,” she said.
This past spring, Talarico began volunteering at the food bank to give back to the community that helped her ease the transition to her life in Canada.
“I thought that I could just help other people, just as the campus food bank helped me,” she said.
Back to school, back to the food bank?
Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Students’ Association (SAITSA) president Aaron Ramos said he’s seeing dependence on campus food programs increase among the student population.
At SAIT, the students’ association offers services like emergency food funding in the form of grocery store gift cards, an organized market that provides students with fresh food available to purchase in a pay-what-you-can structure, and “good food” boxes, which are filled with fresh produce to purchase at a lower cost.
SAITSA has received over 300 requests for emergency food funding this year alone.
“Usually the intention was just if someone was going through a financial hardship that month or that week, they would be able to use these programs as a backup option,” said Ramos. “But nowadays, with the prices in the grocery stores and other commodities, it’s become a full-time reliance on these kinds of programs and services.”
Even the typically quieter summer months have seen an increase in food bank usage on campus. The food bank at the University of Calgary saw a 30-per-cent increase in visitors compared to last summer, and the University of Alberta’s food bank has already had almost 2,000 visits since May.
With no sign of the heightened demand for food decreasing anytime soon, Ramos said he anticipates the need for more food to support students this fall.
“We’re always hitting our maximum and hitting capacity,” Ramos said. “There’s definitely a lot more mouths out there to feed more than what we can support right now. We’re at our financial capacity and operational capacity yet we can’t help everyone as much as we want to.”
“Going into fall, we’re quite nervous about if there will be another spike in demand for the coming school year and if we’ll be able to meet that demand,” O’Neil said.
“Our tracking is leading us to believe that in September we could be well over 1,200 visits per month.”