How has the pandemic shaped an already pervasive issue?

Have you ever skipped lunch or grocery shopping for the sake of studying or doing schoolwork? Have you ever found it difficult to cook adequate meals for yourself due to other time commitments? Have you ever struggled to pull together an eating regimen as a result of insufficient funds? You are not alone in these experiences. 

Food insecurity is a term rarely used, but experienced by many university students, including those here at McMaster University. In a recent survey conducted by students enrolled in SUSTAIN 3S03, it was discovered that 39 per cent of students experience some form of food insecurity, with 12 per cent experiencing severe food insecurity. 

Many McMaster students are not new to experiencing food insecurity, but few define themselves as food insecure or seek out relevant resources. In the same survey mentioned above, it was found that only 24 per cent of food insecure students seek out programs and services such as the MSU Food Collective Centre

This issue is pervasive, affecting many students in our community. With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and move to a completely virtual school experience this year, food insecurity has subsequently taken a different form. Although it is difficult to generate data during this time when most students are not on campus, new and unique issues have been identified that exacerbate the ongoing issue of food insecurity. It is important that students understand what resources are at their disposal. 

Liana Bontempo, the wellness sustainability manager of McMaster Hospitality Services, Tina Moffat, chair of the anthropology department and Kate Whalen, who oversees the McMaster Academic Sustainability Program’s office, brought up many key issues relating to food insecurity amongst McMaster. From unemployment to inadequate governmental support, there are many reasons why students may experience food insecurity more dramatically this year. 

“A lot of students couldn’t work this summer and then they got some government relief, which was great, but maybe not enough,” said Moffat.

The increase in food insecurity amongst students in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic was also discussed by Elise Durie, the assistant director of the MSU Food Collective Centre. From the perspective of students and student representatives, the issue has indeed grown in magnitude and severity. 

“Job and income instability throughout the summer and into the school year have no doubt impacted agency and accessibility when it comes to food choices,” explained Durie. “Furthermore, due to the capitalist nature of our food systems, we are seeing continuously higher food prices that further reduce the affordability of food to students.”

“Furthermore, due to the capitalist nature of our food systems, we are seeing continuously higher food prices that further reduce the affordability of food to students.”

Lack of financial resources limits a student’s ability to properly access the nutrition they need. However, perhaps less obvious obstacles hindering students’ ability to access adequate nutrition have come about during the pandemic. 

“Beyond a socio-economic perspective, the risky nature of venturing to supermarkets during a pandemic has also presented a large issue of accessibility to food security for those with pre-existing health conditions,” said Durie.  

However, it is important to note the pandemic has not created a problem, but rather exacerbated an already existing one. Food insecurity has long been a part of the McMaster student experience for many and like many other issues, has simply moved closer to the limelight this year. 

“I think it’s important to know that it was always there and it was like, if you can’t see it, it’s not there. I’m sure it’s being exacerbated right now,” said Bontempo. 

The issue has long been present in our community but rarely discussed openly. It can be difficult to identify food insecurity and even more so to pinpoint the ways in which the issue has worsened this year when student food insecurity has become normalized.

“We all know the jokes about students exclusively eating ramen or rice and beans, but this has normalized something that is not normal,” explained Durie. “Food should be a right, not a privilege.”

“Food should be a right, not a privilege.”

It is essential that students feel they are able to access the resources they need and the first step is to recognize the problem when it exists. However, students may find they are unable to access resources they need such as food banks when there is a deep stigma attached to using them. In a recent report by the Health Forum, this lack of knowledge and stigma were discussed in greater depth.

“A lot of the things in [the report] talked about are some of the things . . . like the misconception of what a food insecure student looks like, and the unawareness or like the lack of knowledge, but they just don’t know the services are there, or they don’t want to use the services because of a stigma,” said Bontempo. 

It is essential students are aware that there are resources available to them. Although services like the Food Collective Centre have closed for the semester, they are still offering support in other ways and there are other services available to students in need.

“We have tried hard to adapt much of our programming to an online format to ensure members of the McMaster community are able to continue receiving necessary services,” explained Durie. “We are still offering Good Food Boxes once a month at a discounted price and hosting virtual Community Kitchen workshops monthly to teach cooking skills!”

This year has definitely been rough for everyone and even more so for the food insecure student. Here’s hoping this issue enters the mainstream and is discussed more openly as it becomes more prevalent and severe due to the pandemic.

Images courtesy of C/O Silhouette Photo Archives, C/O Food Collective Centre and C/O Elise Durie

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