Banking ahead

The creation and continuation of the AMS Food Bank

"Although sometimes thought of as a ‘rich’ campus, most UBC students are forced to work or have a student loan while attending school.

"With tuition on the rise, students often find it hard to make ends meet, and often do not know where to go for support."

"Students attending UBC must be afforded the luxury of having access to sufficient food to continue their studies at this university."

The quotes above about campus food insecurity aren’t recent. They’re from a 2004 application form to establish the AMS Food Bank. 

“Students do need more help,” said Dani Bryant, the then-AMS Executive Coordinator of Student Services, in a March 16, 2004 Ubyssey article

According to the 2023 AMS Academic Experience Survey (AES), 38 per cent of students worry “about running out of food.” 

This is 15 per cent higher than the 2022 national average.

These students are food insecure, something the UBC Food Security Initiative (FSI) defines as the “inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.”

Elected student representatives and advocates have criticized UBC for a lack of funding for food security while the cost of living and tuition continue to increase. 

It’s clear that there is a need for more food security aid on campus as year after year, the food bank sees an increase in usage, the last few years have seen record-breaking numbers, and the service runs on a tight budget. 

The past year saw a new breaking point for the food bank, causing them to restrict access from UBC staff, which has caused outrage from campus groups. 

Despite this, UBC still has yet to commit to any permanent annual funding for the food bank, putting the onus on the AMS to advocate for funding every year. 

Students have continued to rally for increases in funding from protesting to creating their own initiatives and through AMS advocacy — with student politicians securing substantial funding for the food bank this year and continuing work on an agreement with UBC for permanent funding.

In the summer of 1986, the AMS hired a food bank coordinator for a food bank that didn’t exist yet.

The AMS never planned to run a long-term food bank. It “simply initiated the project to fill a need on campus,” according to a September 1986 Ubyssey article. Students were navigating food insecurity through the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and various food drives organized by student associations, but there was no food bank for students.

Despite this, a real food bank was never established. Rather the AMS worked on short-term initiatives like the food for fines program in 2003. The AMS partnered with the UBC library for four days in November 2003 to allow students to donate canned goods to pay off their library fines for a few days with all proceeds going to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. 

It wasn’t until a bit later in a January 28, 2004 AMS Council meeting, where Bryant,, said she had received a suggestion from the Faculty of Women’s Club to open an on-campus food bank. 

This was not a radical idea. If anything, UBC was lagging. 

At the time, 51 universities across Canada had food banks — SFU’s was founded in 1983 — and students had led many, reports a November 10, 2004 Ubyssey article.

In 2004, 2.7 million Canadians, around 9 per cent of the population, lived in food insecure households. Within BC in 2005, 7.4 per cent of households were food insecure. Now, 22 per cent of Canadians are food insecure, according to 2022 statistics.

Additionally, according to a 2021 report by Oxford Economics, Vancouver is the least affordable city in North America.

The first page of Bryant's 2004 Innovative Projects Fund application.

Bryant worked quickly and by February had successfully applied to receive $6,150 from the Innovative Projects Fund (IPF) to fund the food bank’s creation. 

The IPF is an AMS grant which aids sustainable projects meant to “benefit a significant number of students and further develop the campus community,” according to the AMS’s website

“With tuition on the rise, students often find it hard to make ends meet, and often do not know where to go for support,” read the application. “UBC is one of the only institutions of its size without a campus food bank to service its students.”

Despite getting this funding, Grant Wong, Bryant’s successor, realized they would need to partner with a student group for the project to be successful, according to the same November 10, 2004 Ubyssey article.

And that’s when the Ismaili Students Association (ISA) called Wong’s office “out of the blue” asking if they could help, reads the article. 

This Ubyssey story reported that the ISA played a fundamental role in building the foundation of the food bank — the group garnered community input and looked into different models of running the food bank. 

In September 2005, the AMS opened a food bank. Nestled into the basement of the Life Building, it was completely student-run and initiated. 

UBC Red Cross also joined the project, and for a time, the food bank was completely operated by ISA and Red Cross volunteers. 

By 2007, the food bank was a regular enough service that on February 7, a Council motion was put forward to make the food bank an AMS Service. 

AMS services are the programs the AMS directly operates and they’re aimed at helping students throughout their time at UBC. Other services include AMS Tutoring, Peer Support and Safe Walk. 

The food bank aimed “to provide emergency food relief for UBC students” and had “been functioning like an AMS Service, providing services and resources which are in significant demand,” reads the Council meeting minutes.  

Now, 17 years later, students are still struggling with food insecurity.

Despite being one of the youngest AMS services, the food bank is one of the most used, proving that the service is needed.

The AMS Food Bank was accessed 960 times by students in 2018/19 and 2,373 times in 2020/21. But last year, the food bank saw 16,253 users.

The food bank operates on a ‘trust-based system,’ meaning the AMS Food Bank won’t turn away any UBC student. Students do not need to verify that they are food insecure, they just need a valid UBC student number to access the service.

In March 2023, UBC staff were no longer eligible to access the food bank due to insufficient funding. 

At the Council meeting where this was announced, then AMS President Eshana Bhangu said the idea was to redirect staff to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, citing staff would be “far more able and likely to go … as opposed to students.”

This caused outrage from student groups like Sulong UBC, who started an open letter to restore staff access. There was also a student referendum item put forward for this year’s election that would have restored staff access to the food bank but it never made it to the ballot. 

UBC allocates food insecurity funding through the Food Security Initiative (FSI). The FSI consists of student leaders from groups like the AMS Food Bank, Spouts, Acadia Food Hub and several others, who decide how [CUT the] UBC’s funding will be allocated.

This past academic year, 2023/24 AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Kamil Kanji successfully advocated for $450,000 in funding for the AMS Food Bank.

This funding, according to AMS Senior Services Manager Kathleen Simpson has helped the food bank's functioning.

“I can confidently say that this year, we're well set up to meet the demand that we have both in terms of operations and logistics and purchasing power,” said Simpson.  

Bryant's rationale from the 2004 Innovative Projects Fund application.
Bryant's rationale from the 2004 Innovative Projects Fund application.

Last summer, the food bank was relocated to the lower level of the Nest and saw significant renovations. 

Simpson said these were all “critical” changes since it has increased storage and the flow and amount of people in the space.

The food bank team has also expanded. Simpson said the staff team increased from 2 to 4, and volunteers increased from 40 to 100 “overnight.”

Simpson also highlighted food bank community engagement like having students submit their favorite recipes and creating and distributing recipe cards for them and ensuring all the ingredients are available at the food bank. 

“The funding we received this year has also put us in a position to be able to buy a few more culturally inclusive foods, as well as some items that were popularly requested but we never were able to buy … like tofu and carrots,” said Simpson. 

Moving forward, students can expect increased funding to the AMS Food Bank.

Kanji and his office secured food insecurity funding from UBC, totalling $2.4 million over three years. 

He also said he has been working with the UBC President's Office to create a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to secure annual funding from UBC for the service.

An MoU is a document which signals the intent of doing business or coming to an agreement.

Kanji noted that previous UBC President Santa Ono had signed a five-year MoU with the student society for a $25,000 contribution to the AMS Food Bank every year. 

The current MoU has yet to come to fruition, but the multi-year funding commitment from UBC is "historic ... the university making a multi-year commitments is almost unheard of, for student initiatives particularly.” 

"I would argue that we probably had one of the most successful years related to food insecurity for a long time,” said Kanji.

Bryant's conclusion in the 2004 Innovative Projects Fund application.
Bryant's conclusion in the 2004 Innovative Projects Fund application.

— With files from Sheldon Goldfarb