University funding for food security efforts in the air as need increases

UBC is allocating significantly less to food security initiatives this year, prompting worry that some student-run programs won't be able to meet expanding need.

The AMS Food Bank has seen a 500 per cent increase in visits compared to pre-pandemic levels. Visits spiked at the start of 2022, with visits for February and March surpassing all of the 2019/20 academic year. Yet, UBC's allocation to the Food Bank is dropping from $90,000 to $25,000, and its allocation to Sprouts is dropping from $27,500 to $15,000.

The spike in visits is straining the Food Bank's budget, according to AMS Student Services Manager Mitchell Prost.

“Because of the huge increases [in visits] we were seeing, we were spending $20,000 to $30,000 per month in food purchases,” said Prost.

For the 2021/22 academic school year, UBC's $90,000 in funding to the Food Bank was largely covered by a $65,000 contribution from the Food Security Initiative (FSI). The initiative is run by UBC Wellbeing to support a range of student- and university-managed food security efforts, and was funded largely by tuition increases in the 2021/22 school year. 

Last year's funding was split between the one-time $65,000 FSI grant and a $25,000 annual stipend from the President’s Office. This year, Prost said UBC Wellbeing hasn’t allocated funding for the Food Bank, leaving it with only the President’s Office’s stipend.

Prost said that part of the Food Bank’s fiscal pressure has been alleviated by UBC taking over operations of the Acadia Park Food Hub — a program the AMS ran for two years. The effort, run in conjunction with Origin Church, is geared towards providing food and childcare supplies to families living on and around campus.

But while the AMS previously budgeted $70,000 for the Acadia Park hub, Prost is concerned that the projected funding reduction from the university comes at a time when the Food Bank faces what he described as a “bare minimum” budget.

“[This year’s $140,000 budget] is a very low number for how much food we need to purchase to meet demand … [and] it leaves no room for growth or increased demand, which is what we've been seeing for the past year,” Prost said.

Prost said that as conversations between the AMS and UBC Wellbeing continue, the Food Bank is pursuing partnerships with groups who could provide financial or material support and asking individuals to contribute to its GoFundMe campaign. Nonetheless, he reiterated his call for university administrators to act.

“It will be very challenging without additional funding from UBC to continue to support [students] as well as we are now,” said Prost.

Sprouts, a student-run food co-operative and cafe, received a one-time FSI allocation of $27,500 during the redistribution of 2021/22 tuition increase revenues towards student affordability programs and pandemic response efforts. This year, they are receiving $15,000 from UBC.

Sprouts Co-President Gizel Gedik said that the FSI funding enabled the co-op to repair its refrigerators, buy new kitchen equipment, begin offering take-out meals, launch a free meal program and pilot a produce box program that later became a weekly by-donation produce market.

“It was the first year the cafe actually had real equipment and not just random utensils lying around from someone's house,” said Gedik.

Due to the funding reduction, Gedik said that the Sprouts team will balance whether it is able to continue its free meal card program and by-donation produce market, but will likely be unable to replace its broken dishwashers or furniture.

Gedik said that when the Board of Governors endorsed the Student Affordability Task Force Report (SATF), which proposed a Community-Led Food Security Grant Program, the group believed that the university was ready to help support and expand Sprouts’ efforts.

However, a reduced budget for UBC Wellbeing this year meant Sprouts's asks could not be met.

“We were ready to propose our new programs … We wanted more than $30k, and they asked ‘How does under $10k sound?,’” said Gedik.

According to Gedik, members of the FSI team recommended raising café prices, running donation drives and cutting contributions to off-campus mutual aid programs. 

Gedik said that Sprouts' representative on the UBC Wellbeing advisory committee had voiced their funding concerns before. However, Gedik emphasised that the committee does not control how UBC Wellbeing splits funding allocations between its partners, nor what the department receives from the VP Students Office.

Gedik confirmed to The Ubyssey that in mid-July, UBC Wellbeing offered to increase its contribution to Sprouts from $10,000 to $15,000 and invited the club to the FSI core team, which advises the initiative’s funding allocations.

Representatives from neither UBC Wellbeing’s administrative staff nor the VP Students Office administrative staff with authority over the budget responded to multiple requests for comment.

Student food security groups see a funding gap compared to university-led counterparts 

In an interview with The Ubyssey, Andrew Parr, vice-president of Student Housing and Community Services and member of the UBC Wellbeing advisory committee acknowledged that while he does not control the VP students's budget, he’s aware that UBC’s budget is pulled in many directions.

“There's typically quite a large number of ‘asks’ — [projects] that departments or faculties want to do that they're not currently doing that require more funding,” Parr said.  

“As you can imagine, those ‘asks’ always far exceed the capacity to fund those things,” he added.

While Parr acknowledged that this year’s FSI allocation of $325,000 is a fraction of the $1.91 million spent on food security efforts last year, he maintained the funding for 2021/22 was to be understood as one-time expenditures.

However, a nearly six-digit difference in funding between the Community Food Hub Market and student-led programs remains.

The FSI would not comment on the differences in funding between student- and university-managed programs, but Parr said that both kinds of efforts were impacted by this year’s funding shift.

According to figures provided by Parr, funding for programs like Community Food Hub Market and UBC Meal Share are both projected to be lower than last year, coming in at $112,000 and $50,000, respectively. 

He emphasized that funding for the Community Food Hub Market would enable the market to purchase $57,000 worth of goods while providing a living wage to staff and work-learn students and noted that the UBC Meal Share program could see varying levels of funding as it continues its pilot stage.

Gedik believes there’s not enough to go around because there’s no regularly allocated funding stream for food security. Although all revenues from last year’s tuition increases were reserved for “student-identified priorities," around 79 per cent of this year’s revenues are going directly to faculties or the Academic Excellence Funds (AEF). A portion of this year’s AEF budget is intended to increase affordability, including a $2 million matching program for donations to need-based financial aid programs, but funding for other SATF-recommended actions could not be confirmed.

Kurt Heinrich, senior communications director of UBC Media Relations, wrote in a statement that consideration would be given to "supplemental funding" if the current funding was not enough to support the community.

“UBC also understands and respects the value of the many student-led initiatives and continues to support them as best as possible … budget allocations are based on where the University believes the best and more effective use of funds can be realized,” he added.

Due to the funding reduction, the Food Bank may not be able to accomodate growth, and Sprouts will likely be unable to replace broken equipment.
Due to the funding reduction, the Food Bank may not be able to accomodate growth, and Sprouts will likely be unable to replace broken equipment. Gizel Gedik / Sprouts

UBC offers alternative resources, but can’t guarantee stopgap funding 

As fall approaches, student groups and university administrators are continuing to work towards securing funding for food security programs, though their progress remains unclear.

Parr highlighted the UBC Meal Share pilot, which fulfilled nearly 4,000 requests to receive hundreds of dollars in Loblaws or UBCcard credit from October 2021 to April 2022. However, funding for this program is projected to fall from $525,000 to $50,000 this year.

Parr also pointed to the new all-access dining plan as an effort to ensure access to nutritious meals for undergraduate students living in residence. He noted that while UBC Food Services generates revenue, it only aims for self-sufficiency with a “maximum” two per cent profit margin that is reallocated towards academic initiatives.

“We could [choose to] not contribute to things like Fooood … or not have a dietitian in residence, or not do a lot of things and maximize our profit,” explained Parr. “But we’re not profit oriented, we’re service oriented.”

Regarding proposed subsidized all-access dining passes, Parr said more information will be released in August.

President Santa Ono has signalled his interest in working with student representatives to find funding for food security programs. The President’s Office would not provide comment for this article, but Prost confirmed that AMS President Eshana Bhangu and VP Academic and University Affairs Dana Turdy began conversations with Ono in mid-July to secure additional Food Bank funding.

According to Parr, the university holds contingency funds and is working on fundraising campaigns specifically geared towards addressing food insecurity on campus, though details have yet to be released. But while he isn’t in control of how or which food security efforts get funded, Parr reminded stakeholders to consider the impact that food insecurity has on individual students.

“We see the food insecurity issue as the canary in the coal mine — it’s one of the first things students stop investing in when financial hardship [arises],” said Parr.

This piece was updated at 3:51 p.m. on Friday, August 26 to clarify that no representative from the VP Students Office with authority over the budget responded to multiple requests for comment.