‘A huge shock to the system’: COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity on campus

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, fourth-year honours cell and developmental biology student Rose Rodrigues was never too concerned about being food insecure. Although she lived paycheck to paycheck, she said she was always able to purchase groceries and put food on the table.

But since the pandemic struck, she was laid off from her new restaurant job, severing her only stream of income. In addition, she’s ineligible to apply for employment insurance from the year-long co-op position she recently returned from.

Now, uncertainty is looming and “$100 grocery bills” are no longer as feasible.

“I’m trying to figure out if I have enough money to pay my rent on the first or if I buy some more food and then end up being short for rent and try to get my roommates to cover for me,” she said.

Rodrigues’s experience coping with the added financial stress of the pandemic is far from an anomaly. With workplaces shutting down and bills to pay, students are increasingly having to grapple with food insecurity.

But this is not a new problem. The 2019 AMS Undergraduate Experience Survey found that 37 per cent of UBC Vancouver undergraduates and 42.3 per cent of UBC Okanagan undergraduates were food insecure. These figures are roughly three times the national average.

The groups most at risk of food insecurity on campus are international students, those who identify as transgender or non-binary, those with mental health conditions and disabilities as well as those primarily funded by student loans.

While graduate students were left out of this survey, AMS Food Bank data suggests that they are also disproportionately affected.

According a 2019 report on food insecurity by UBC Wellbeing, university students are at a greater risk of food insecurity because of high unemployment, rising tuition costs and high rental prices — especially in Vancouver.

Throwing a global pandemic into the mix makes food insecure students’ situation even more precarious, said Food Insecurity Project Manager Sara Kozicky, the author of that report.

“Those who are already at risk are going to be further at risk,” Kozicky said. “I think people who normally would not be at risk of food insecurity will be now. It’s clearly tied to income.”

Resources on campus

In recent years, the university has developed a number of initiatives to combat food insecurity, including the AMS Food Bank and the recent creation of the UBC Food Insecurity Action Team.

Before the outbreak, there were also a handful of inexpensive food options on campus like Sprouts, Agora Cafe, and Fooood, but like most other food options on campus, they have closed due to COVID-19.

The AMS Food Bank in the Life Building remains open, albeit with reduced hours, on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m.

According to AMS Food Bank Coordinator Cali Schnarr, the Food Bank has seen an increase in clientele in recent weeks. Schnarr said that on average the Food Bank would receive 18.5 clients per day. Now, the number has increased to 20 to 25 clients per day, even though many students have moved off campus.

Schnarr noted that the Food Bank is fairly stocked-up due to “generous” donors in the community, including individuals, grocery stores and donations from other AMS food outlets that were closed because of the pandemic.

But this might change in the near future, she added, because they highly depend on orders from grocery stores, many of which are experiencing shortages of canned and dry goods.

Despite the existence of food banks at UBC and around Vancouver, accessibility remains a big issue, especially for students living off campus.

“Likely, you’re not going to be within walking distance of a food bank,” Kozicky said.

Rodrigues, who lives off campus, said she “wasn’t aware” of the AMS Food Bank and that going all the way to campus to use it is not very realistic for her. She also noted that for her and other food-insecure students, commuting to campus would put her at risk.

“I’m a little wary to take public transit right now,” she said.

Due to limited staffing, Schnarr said they are unable to provide delivery services. But students are able to send someone on their behalf to pick up goods if they bring a picture of the student’s UBC Card.

“[Accessibility is] something we’re constantly working on to try and improve. … We’re trying to help out students in the way that we can with our limited capacity right now,” said Schnarr.

Asking for help

In the face of these obstacles, students have found other ways to come together and lend a hand.

Third-year biology student and newly elected AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee created the Facebook group UBC Campus Support Network for students to respond to others’ needs, such as running errands or cooking for those who are unable to leave the house.

“I think there’s definitely a stigma surrounding food insecurity,” she said. “We’ve worked really hard to create a non-judgemental atmosphere.”

As the situation quickly evolves, the university is also rushing to find and implement measures to assist students who might be struggling with food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

In a written statement to The Ubyssey, Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey urged students to contact Enrolment Services “to discuss emergency financial situations of any kind, including food insecurity.”

Kozicky said she believes that the outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted some of the holes in the Canadian food and societal systems.

“When people are already at risk of food insecurity, a major global pandemic is a huge shock to the system.”