The reality of the starving student

There is usually a queue of assorted students, domestic and international, gathering in front of the campus food banks before they open at both Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s universities in Halifax.
One might call it a sad case of déjà vu when SMU had to open a “food room” in 2015: 48 years after the world’s first food bank opened in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1967. It was named the St. Mary’s Food Bank.
Denominational semantics aside, it may be surprising to note that every institution of higher learning in the city has a food bank on campus (or campuses, as in the case of the Nova Scotia Community College).
They are named differently, as in Mount Saint Vincent University’s “Wellness Pantry” or the “SUNSCAD Food Bank” at NSCAD University.
But they all fulfil a critical need to their primary constituent: a hungry post-secondary student who has a hard time making ends meet on a limited budget in a metropolitan area known for its pricey rental housing. Do you eat properly or forego paying rent?
One thing all these campus food banks have in common is their ability to somehow stay open year-round. Student volunteers staff many, with sometimes a paid student coordinator. But student associations manage them all, often getting funding from that specific department if not the institution itself.
“SMUSA [Saint Mary’s University Student Association] and Student Affairs & Services provide direct financial support for the Food Room,” says Chantal Caissie, an alumni officer at SMU. “That funding is a university operating budget line. With that funding, they’re able to purchase approximately $2,000 worth of groceries for the room per month.”
That’s not the only funding. “The other sources of support come from monetary donations through the university’s Annual Giving campaign, as well as food collection drives throughout the year by different departments, faculties, and student societies,” she says. “Feed Nova Scotia also does a food delivery every two weeks that helps supplement the inventory.”
Michael Davies-Cole is the manager of the Dalhousie Student Union Food Bank. In a news release, he says there has been an increase in international and graduate students using the facility and that it’s “heartbreaking…to have upper year students come in, saying they wish they knew about the food bank sooner. I have had people say they don’t know if they should be using the food bank, but if you need food you need food. Period.”
Finding a student willing to discuss having to use a college food bank is difficult. No one Halifax Magazine approached would talk on the record about their experiences unless we agreed not to use their name.
A 2018 study by Nutrients, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published in Switzerland shows it’s not a localized issue. “Among students who provided qualitative insights, four main barriers to using the on-campus food pantry were identified: social stigma, insufficient information on pantry use policies, self-identity, and inconvenient hours,” says the report “Why Are Hungry College Students Not Seeking Help? Predictors of and Barriers to Using an On-Campus Food Pantry.”
In Canada, according to a study published in Maclean’s in 2016, “The students particularly at risk are financially independent from parents, namely those funded by band councils, student loans and bank loans. The most vulnerable—international students, Aboriginal students and students with dependent children—were some of the most food insecure.” The study was undertaken by Meal Exchange, the national campus food organization.
One woman, a 19-year-old student at SMU who wanted to remain anonymous, talked about her situation: “I visit the Food Room pretty much every week and the volunteers there are really amazing. They help me find what I need to make a couple meals and I feel less stressed about affording groceries.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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