University students are feeling the effects of the cost of living crisis, with some resorting to taking unused food from jobs, dumpster diving and striking up barter economies with others.
Izzy Adachi, the director of campaigns and community relations for the University of Victoria’s Student Society (UVSS) said a survey completed in December 2022 found 63.8 per cent of students who responded said they are experiencing food insecurity, meaning they struggle to afford enough food to eat.
This has had a huge impact on the student food bank at UVic, which is already facing $135,000 deficit.
While some respondents were full-time students, a majority of those who said they were experiencing food insecurity had part-time, full-time or several jobs.
“The majority of students are working and they’re still struggling,” Adachi said.
One student who asked to remain anonymous because she is worried she may be fired, shared her experience with food insecurity.
As a grad student at UVic, she said she had some funding in her first year – about $20,000 through a combination of paid work, awards and scholarships. She said, however, there is no guarantee of funding after the first year and even with it, $20,000 doesn’t last long in Victoria.
She had to leave her apartment last year after her landlord raised her rent for a studio from $1,800 to $2,000 and she now lives with roommates, who she said also experience food insecurity. This common struggle has prompted them to come up with a system that includes stealing, bartering and sharing.
“I used to have no problem with affording food, but in the past year or so, it has gotten impossible to afford basic things like fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Half the reason I decided to get a job serving in a restaurant is because I get a free meal with my shift. Usually, I order the biggest thing on the menu, and try to make it stretch out over the next day or so, eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My diet is very limited now.”
The restaurant she works at employs a lot of other students as well. She said it is common for people to throw food like jam, peanut butter and milk into their bags at the end of their shifts.
Her roommate Stella, who asked asked us to not include her last name because she fears she will be fired, also uses her job to access food. Stella works at a grocery store where she is required to throw out unsold pastries at the end of the night. Instead, she puts them in a new garbage bag and hides them to take with her at the end of her shift.
“Sometimes she can fill almost half a garbage bag full,” she said. “A lot of the time we’ll drive down Pandora and Douglas and give them out to homeless people. The sheer amount of waste at grocery stores is insane.”
Eating in their house is truly a team effort and their third roommate, who also works at a restaurant, often brings home to-go orders that aren’t picked up at the end of the night.
Anything the three don’t eat, they trade.
“We’ve traded food from our work for printer paper, used textbooks, furniture, etc,” she said. “When you’re broke and desperate, you find ways to start your own barter economy with other people who have no money.”
Students depending on each other for food is a common occurrence, according to the 2022 UVSS survey, and 75 per cent of UVic students said the university is not doing enough to address the cost of living.
“We saw tuition rise again this year, we saw parking costs go up this year,” Adachi said. “We are really just depending on each other to make it through it.
This sentiment was echoed by Wyatt Maddox, who is on the Graduate Students Society board of directors. He said graduate students are using the food bank at a disproportionate rate – 38 per cent – while making up only 10 to 15 per cent of the total population of UVic.
“The university has made it quite clear that they will not be lending significant support to the food bank,” Maddox said. “They have created a program in which students may donate to a fund that other students may use to purchase food on campus. This puts the onus on poor students to support each other.”
Maddox said the program, which is called the UVic Meal Share Program, also has limitations on how much a student can use. The $50 students are allowed to take from the fund must also be used at food outlets associated with UVic. Adachi said with campus sandwiches ringing in at $10 each, that money doesn’t stretch far.
In the past, Maddox said students have resorted to “vulturing” or grabbing uneaten food off tables after others have left, but now dumpster diving and using food banks is more popular.
“There are a lot of students, especially grad students, who are currently doing a lot of dumpster diving,” he said. “They will show up with a backpack full of recently expired food, they’ll hand them out to other students … and it tends to turn into a group activity, where you have students going out and literally raiding dumpsters for food.”
Maddox said he considers UVic a food desert, which is an urban area where food is unaffordable or there isn’t quality produce. There are two dining halls on campus, but Maddox said the food they serve is known for being below quality. Other university-operated eating options offer prepackaged food that is over-priced he said. The nearest grocery store is a 10-minute bus ride.
The graduate students society puts on a weekly “Wednesday coffee” where they offer free food like bagels and bread. Maddox said the number of people attending has risen by more than half over the past year.
But even offering these small meals and weekly services, students at UVic are still struggling, asking for more to be done and reporting that the stress of finding food is impacting them in every way.
“Students are reporting that they are seeing severe impacts on their mental and physical health, just from the amount of stress this cost of living crisis has put on them,” Adachi said. “There are real ramifications.”
Jim Dunsdon, associate vice-president of UVic student affairs, said in a statement the school acknowledges inflation and rising food prices are a significant issue for students.
On Feb. 5, University Food Services launched a survey to hear feedback from students, staff and faculty about the food provided on campus, the costs of food and what they’d like to see at UVic.
“It’s important for us to know how many students, staff or faculty may be having challenges with affordability on campus,” Dunsdon said. “The survey was designed to also gauge awareness about supports that are available for those struggling with the cost of living. If results show that awareness about these programs is low, we will work to improve this.”