Letter: Can UBC do better to feed its food insecure students?

Recently, the UBC Library, the AMS and the UBC Okanagan Students Union ran the bi-annual Food for Fines Campaign. The campaign invites students to reduce their UBC library fines by donating non-perishable food items: $3 in fines paid for each food item donated (to a $60 maximum). The donations go to the UBC AMS Food Bank on Campus and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, which provide — up to six times a term — food relief for hungry UBC students.

At first glance, this food charity initiative looks like a triple win situation for students: we escape library debt; we support a noble cause and if food waste is reduced, we make good use of that tuna can about to expire. However, evidenced-based and internationally-recognized Canadian research shows that food banking as a response to food insecurity is ineffective, counterproductive and undermines human rights.

Food charity is a band-aid solution that fails to address the structural causes of household food insecurity. As PROOF, a Canadian insecurity research team, says food insecurity is a problem of financial constraints. A food bank might alleviate the urgency of hunger but fails to offer a proactive and sustainable income based solution. Having eaten her can of tuna and still without money, the student using the AMS food bank finds herself in the same vulnerable position. Or worse, if it is her sixth visit.

If charitable food banks were an efficient solution, the 36-year-old Greater Vancouver Food Bank would already have solved the problem. In wealthy food secure British Columbia, household food insecurity is an income problem — not a food problem.

Yes, there is a moral imperative to feed hungry people, but constantly depending on food charity disregards the idea that the act of nourishing ourselves is a human right. The human right to adequate food — the right of every person to eat in dignity — is an entitlement not a favor, one recognized under international law by Canada since 1976. In other words, government is the ‘primary duty bearer’ for ensuring we all have the economic ability to feed ourselves in sustainable, healthy and customary ways.

Food charity is not a right that can be claimed by individuals and upheld by law.

The right to food recognizes human agency empowering and enabling us with the right to acquire our food to the best of our preferences. We all have the right to choose healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food and shop for it like everyone else. This is particularly important nowadays in the midst of the obesity and environmental crisis, as UBC itself just declared a climate emergency. In contrast, food charity is based on an unequal relation between a donor and a disempowered recipient who depends on good will, restricted to pre-selected Big Food corporate donations and surplus food — e.g. Walmart and supermarket chains — generated by a wasteful and dysfunctional industrial food system. Moreover, visiting the food bank is a stigmatizing experience and research shows many stay away.

Ad hoc corporate food charity depoliticizes domestic hunger, allowing governments and public institutions to look away. Yet they must be held accountable for ‘respecting, protecting and fulfilling’ the right to food. We acknowledge the urgency of providing relief to students in need, but UBC is a top-of-the-world research public institution committed to challenging the status quo to shape a better world. In addressing on-campus food insecurity, can UBC do better than exchanging library fines for cans of tuna?

Given students’ lack of income, why not focus on tuition fees, debt and income redistribution? How about strengthening access to on campus and provincial financial assistance and grants? The UBC administration is not alone in this task of addressing peoples’ economic conditions. Recently the BC government released its poverty reduction strategy, which referred to the problem of “relying on food banks” and to examining ways to strengthen financial security. Dialogue between these two entities is a priority.

Another potential partner is the AMS food bank itself. As first responders, they have valuable data and expertise about the student population in need. The UBC academic community is likewise a crucial ally. With our academic resources, we could collaborate in crafting research projects catered to pose questions that would led us to approach the problem in a more sustainable, efficient and dignified way. Assessing and monitoring students’ income, food affordability, retail and food services offers, inequality, health and sustainable food production are just some of the topics that could be undertaken. It will not be easy, food insecurity is one of the most complex issues humanity faces today — now further challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But UBC has the capability and our community, well, we thrive on challenges.

Laura Castrejon is a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary studies and the Institute for the Resources, Environment and Sustainability. Graham Riches is a professor emeritus in the School of Social Work.

Note: A previous version of this article stated that the right to adequate food and the right to eat with dignity were separate when they are not. The later is encompassed by the former. This has been corrected in the piece.