The missing ingredient: How culturally-relevant food access supports student wellbeing

Growing up in the Renfrew-Collingwood area of Vancouver, fourth-year geography and urban studies student Philip Vargas and his mom knew where to find real corn tortillas, a staple of his family’s central Mexican cuisine. They always shopped at the same store: Los Guerreros.

“We would go to the Safeway to get the stuff that’s commonly available,” said Vargas. “And then we’d go across the street to that store to get our stuff that makes Mexican food Mexican.”

He would wander the aisles for queso fresco, serrano chiles and paleta payasos — chocolate marshmallows on sticks wrapped in the logo of a smiling clown.

That changed when he moved to Dunbar to be closer to UBC, a 40-minute R4 ride away from the supermarkets he grew up with.

“I haven’t been able to cook as much Mexican food, just using a little very white-washed stuff from the Save-On [Foods],” said Vargas. “So I’ve just been getting stuff from restaurants, which is expensive.”

Vargas is one of many UBC students who have to choose between culture and convenience in a rising food affordability crisis.

Food traditions connect people to their homes, their histories and to each other. But many students said their options for affordable culturally-specific food — from seasonings and good tortillas to certified kosher meals — are slim.

How do UBC students access the food they need to not only stay alive, but to feel like themselves?

Let them cook

For fourth-year geography student Lukas Troni, grocery store trips and shared meals with friends help him enjoy his favourite Chilean and Mexican foods.

“With my friends, there are Latin grocery stores that we go to where we can find the ingredients and then try to replicate recipes,” said Troni. “That’s something that I’ve been doing a lot for the past few years because [it] really connects me to home and to culture.”

Troni said Chilean food is characterized by fresh seafood and produce from the country’s long, abundant coastline, like caldillo de congrio (a fish stew) and machas a la parmesana (razor clams stuffed with parmesan cheese). A hemisphere away, Vancouver’s seafood doesn’t taste the same and Chilean restaurants are few and far between.

Troni and Vargas both pointed out that Vancouver isn’t known for its Latin American food scene. As per 2021 census data, only two per cent of the city’s population identifies as Latin American.

Still, many international supermarkets follow the demand to stock foods that reflect the multicultural makeup of their neighbourhoods. 62 per cent of Renfrew-Collingwood, where Vargas’s favourite markets are located, is comprised of first-generation immigrants as per the 2016 census, with the majority coming from the Philippines, China and South Korea.

“Chinese grocery stores actually helped my family out because they had cheaper local organic produce,” said Vargas. “And they had some Mexican foods ... I don’t know why, but they just had them.”

Vargas said that as a child, this sometimes caused the lines between cuisines to blur. He assumed that dragon fruit came from Asia since he always saw their magenta spikes at Chinese groceries beside lychees and pomelos. But while dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, is widely cultivated in South Asia, Vargas said he’s since learned that they actually originated in Mesoamerica, domesticated by ancient Mayans and Aztecs.

Histories of migration shape food just like they shape people.

Vancouver immigrant food producers had to cope with food systems designed to exploit them, according to reporting from Tyee journalist Christopher Cheung. To adapt, they started producing the foods they missed from home, opened grocery stores and stocked the shelves with international products — from paneer to pitaya — that white grocers wouldn’t.

Many UBC students, both local and international, benefit from their persistence — when they can access it.

Where you live is what you eat

For first-year students living in residence, food options often are determined by the meal plan.

“We have 4,600 students on the first-year mandatory meal plan, and they’re from all over the world,” said UBC Food Services Culinary Director David Speight. “So it’s a big task to please as many people as possible among the fiscal and environmental requirements we have in our kitchens.”

Fifth-year English literature student Gurnoor Powar found living on campus difficult because she felt disconnected from her Indian culture, best conveyed through food. Her favourite is jalebis, orange spirals of dough soaked in sweet syrup.

“I get most of my joy out of food,” said Powar. “So when I was on campus, I was incredibly depressed.”

For Powar, cooking Indian food is an important part of her life. There is limited access to authentic Indian ingredients and quality food options on campus, and most Indian grocery stores are distant — the closest ones are in Punjabi Market, a 40-minute commute away on the R4 or 49 bus line.

“When I was on campus, I rarely had Indian food,” said Powar. “And if I had Indian food, it was horrible.”

Powar resorted to buying non-perishable food and even depended on her family to bring grocery items for her from Surrey.

“My parents would go out of their way to drive all the way to Vancouver and give me groceries so I could make food,” said Powar. “A lot of the times I would ask them, ‘Can you bring me this or that ... chole bhature or jalebis if you have time?’”

An important part of food is sharing it. But living alone on campus made that difficult for Powar, who said it was a very “isolating experience.”

“It was so depressing to make a cup of chai and then just look around and be alone,” said Powar.

Meanwhile, some commuter students have the benefit of home-cooked meals, easier access to family recipes and a pantry stocked with necessary ingredients.

“Some students are living at home with their families, where they may have less autonomy over food choices, [especially] if there are still others in the household doing the shopping and cooking and the choosing,” said UBC food, nutrition and health professor Dr. Jennifer Black.

“Others are living on their own, in residence or off campus and ... creating new lives, identities and traditions. I don’t think there’s one path that reflects how students do that.”

Powar eventually decided to move back home.

“I moved out finally, and I realized a big part of why I was so sad was because [of] the food.”

Speight said UBC Food Services has been working to centre cultural diversity in their menu planning. They partner with local purveyors like Indian Pantry for Indian seasonings and Grandpa J’s for Greek spices, and aim to put together menus that “[provide] food from many places around the world.”

Still, no matter where the food comes from, it has a growing cost.

“Regardless of the cultural appropriateness of the food ... the financial requirements of students is always a challenge for us,” said Speight.

Beyond food security

As the cost of living in Vancouver increases, UBC students struggle to afford food. According to the 2022 UBC Undergraduate Experience Survey, 90 per cent of domestic respondents and 85 per cent of international respondents expressed concern about affording food in the academic year.

Food security isn’t only about getting the calories necessary for survival. According to Black, access to food that connects people to their sense of culture, community and home also impacts health.

“Many of our preferences are shaped not only by our biological and physiological needs, for calories and nutrients, but also the meaning and symbolism of food in our lives,” said Black. “And many of those processes are learned from our earliest times in childhood, and through our community experiences.”

10 per cent of AMS 2022 Academic Experience Survey respondents expressed concern about the limited accessibility of culturally appropriate foods on campus.

“Even if you’re filled nutritionally, if you don’t have foods that are culturally important to you or foods from your people, you’re still gonna be physically unhealthy because you’re not eating the foods that you enjoy,” said Vargas.

This is especially important for many Indigenous communities. Colonial land theft and assimilationist policies attempted to destroy traditional Indigenous foodways, and environmental degradation threatens them further. Accessing traditional food is often a form of healing.

46 per cent of Indigenous respondents to the 2023 AMS Academic Experience Survey reported worrying about access to food in the past year — a disproportionately high number compared to the 38 per cent of students experiencing food insecurity overall.

At UBC, spaces like xʷc̓ic̓əsəm, the Indigenous Health Research and Education Garden at UBC Farm, grow culturally-relevant plants and medicine for Indigenous communities on and off campus.

They highlight xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) foodways through plants like salal and salmonberries, as well as Indigenous food and medicine from other territories, such as sacred tobacco.

Limited budgets, limited menus

UBC and the AMS offer several resources for those struggling with food insecurity like the AMS Food Bank and the Food Hub Market.

The Food Bank is the most used AMS service, with 16,248 user interactions in the 2022/23 academic year and over 600 students served per week. The disproportionate majority of users are international students and graduate students.

“Food banks are where we need these foods the most,” said Vargas. “If you’re already facing financial troubles, and you’re also not able to access the food that you need and that you want, you’re just gonna not be very happy.”

“For me, food is happiness — I get depressed when I can’t have the food that I like.”

But this organization’s ability to meet UBC’s food needs, let alone culturally-appropriately, is limited.

According to AMS Senior Manager Student Services Kathleen Simpson, their capacity for expanding their selection to include ingredients beyond Canadian staples is limited by the funding UBC and the AMS allocates — and the Food Bank has seen consistent budget shortfalls.

They try to take user preference into account through surveys and inventories of what foods run out first.

“I think that both rice and tofu, frankly, were important steps in having more cultural diversity in the items that we were offering,” said Simpson.

UBC’s Food Hub Market in the Centre for Interactive Research and Sustainability (CIRS) is another initiative that aims to provide low-cost food in a way that supports user choice and dignity. It’s run by students and funded through the Food Security Initiative.

“The Market’s emphasis on culturally diverse and plant-forward foods, along with the interactive whiteboard for shopper requests, reflects a proactive approach to catering to the diverse dietary preferences and cultural backgrounds of the UBC community,” wrote UBC Health Equity, Promotion and Education Director Levonne Abshire in a statement to The Ubyssey.

Around the grocery shelves of fresh produce, teas, cans of tomatoes and coconut milk, tables and chairs are set up for students to chat or study after shopping. The cafe-like atmosphere is an effort to combat the stigma often associated with accessing food assistance and to promote community around the market.

‘That’s how I like to show my love’

Beyond those chairs in CIRS, UBC students make the effort to gather around tables that nourish them physically and socially.

“I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of people that really do give great importance and appreciation to food and how it connects to culture, and to community as well,” said Troni.

Powar regularly takes her friends to Surrey to enjoy Indian food, especially Punjabi food.

“They can’t get to that type of food usually because they don’t have a car. So I pick them up, drive them all the way to Surrey and I drive them all the way back,” said Powar. “That’s how I like to show my love.”

“Better quality of food equals better quality of life,” said Powar. “Those are just hand in hand.”