The Rumbling of Students’ Empty Stomachs Has Become Too Loud to Ignore
By Maya Honda-Granirer, Staff Writer
It’s that time again. The rumbling of my stomach. The activation of my salivary glands. The longing to exercise my jaws. The trembling of my fingers to hold a knife and fork. But as I step foot into the dining hall, the sight of the prices threatens to topple my already wobbly legs. I just want to eat food: why must it be so hard?
Food insecurity, defined as inadequate or insecure access to food, has seen a recent and steep rise among postsecondary student populations. A large-scale survey conducted by the non-profit Meal Exchange found that 56.8 percent of students from thirteen universities across Canada experienced food insecurity in 2021. This number reflects a staggering increase from 2016 when the same organization reported that just under 40% of postsecondary students were experiencing food insecurity. Though we cannot pinpoint the exact causes of this increase, several likely contributors include the COVID-19 pandemic, rising tuition fees and living costs, and universities’ various shortcomings in supporting students.
The vast majority of studies across Canada find that rates of food insecurity among university students are much higher than in the general population. The highest rates tend to be reported by international and exchange students, perhaps due to their lack of eligibility for many financial aid programs. The current published research on food insecurity shows that university students’ access to food is less than ideal, and this problem isn’t going anywhere.
Postsecondary students face the easily overwhelming challenge of balancing a myriad of responsibilities, pressures, and commitments – food can easily become the last thing on their minds. That said, eating regularly, healthily, and purposefully is vitally important, even beyond basic survival. Countless studies have found an association between food insecurity and students’ mental and physical health, as well as GPA and academic performance. Moreover, students who face inadequate access to food are more likely to experience elevated stress levels and difficulty concentrating in class.
Despite the far-reaching importance of food in our everyday lives as students, little is done on campuses to encourage healthy and plentiful eating. In fact, the opposite narrative seems to be the most prevalent. The notion of the ‘starving student’ is often normalized as a characteristic part of the university experience. Rather than serious conversations on food access and affordability, students are more likely to encounter jokes about living off instant noodles and eating at curious hours of the night.
U of T’s own Innovation Hub has hailed food security as “the key to student self-fulfillment.” Yet, little research has been done at U of T on the levels of student food insecurity or the challenges they face regarding food. Common student criticisms of the food at U of T mention overpriced meal plans, meager food portions, and limited options to choose from.
In order to better understand the experiences and struggles of U of T students with food, I spoke with fellow peers to gain their perspectives.
Muzna – A Commuter Student Perspective
Muzna is a third-year student who commutes to U of T from her home. Most of her meals are eaten at home, and she typically buys no more than a cup of coffee on a typical day on campus. When asked about her eating routines, Muzna said, “[Eating] is really important in my schedule.” She tries to set aside time each day to eat – around 30 minutes per meal for a good three meals a day. Muzna expressed that other students may not share her ability to set aside time to eat: “It’s really important to eat. I know it’s hard sometimes to take it out of your day, especially on campus.” Nonetheless, being a commuter student comes with its own challenges. Muzna said that packing lunch and snacks is a priority, given how expensive the food on campus is. And though she has not heard of or encountered food insecurity within her circle of friends, she feels that it may be prevalent, citing the high tuition costs and academic fees at U of T.
Micah – Within the Halls of Strachan
Micah is a first-year student who currently resides at Trinity College residence. With regard to his mandatory meal plan, he certainly has mixed feelings. On one hand, Micah appreciates that the food is more affordable at Trinity since the meal plan comes with a percent discount on all purchases. That said, he also expressed frustration at the lack of options and small portion sizes of the food offered: “I don’t think there are enough options for food on campus. Specifically for Strachan Hall, I don’t think the selection available every day is very varied.” Additionally, since most dishes offered come in a set portion size, it is usually too awkward to ask for another serving, which holds up the line and costs double the price.
Another aspect of the Trinity meal plan that Micah hopes can be improved is the “flex dollars” that each student is granted alongside their “base dollars.” Flex dollars are quite similar to the T-bucks included in most other colleges’ meal plans, except that they can only be used at Trinity College’s Strachan Hall or The Buttery. Consequently, food options for Trinity students on the meal plan remain quite constricted. Micah hopes for more choice and freedom in the Trinity meal plan – specifically, more options for which food to eat and how much. “For the parts that can be covered by meal plans, I do hope that there’s more accessibility to what options there are.”
Vinh – From the Far Away Land of Chestnut
Vinh is a first-year student who lives at the Chestnut residence, which is a 20-minute walk from the U of T main campus. Like many other residences, a meal plan is mandatory for students at Chestnut. Vinh’s choice of the largest meal plan allows him to buy food relatively freely, though he remarked that it was quite expensive – around $5500 for a year. “In my experience, the food at Chestnut has not been affordable at all for most people.” Vinh explains that those who have smaller meal plans often worry about their food purchases, especially since the food is quite expensive and priced by weight. “You can only eat comfortably if you have the most expensive plan… Some of my friends eat really little because they’re afraid they’re gonna run out of meal plan money.” Vinh hopes that U of T as a whole can improve the structure and pricing of its meal plans, so that “it’s affordable even for students with a smaller meal plan, to prevent students having to limit how much they eat.”
Cordelia – New College, Old Problems
Cordelia is a first-year student who lives and dines at New College. Her mandatory meal plan functions like a debit card, with a set balance awarded to each student at the beginning of the school year that declines with each purchase. Students are given three plan options to choose from that differ in their starting balance. However, each option only differs by a few hundred dollars, and all are pretty pricey. Cordelia also mentioned that the cost of the meal plan is much higher than what most students can spend on food in an academic year. “The worst thing is, they don’t really give you the money that you don’t finish, so it’s just wasting your money.” To address this issue, Cordelia feels that New College should offer a wider range of price options for their meal plans.
As someone who values healthy eating, Cordelia feels frustrated at the lack of well-rounded choices at New College. “A lot of the options that they have are really not healthy. We don’t really see a lot of vegetables in their dishes. It’s mostly meat-based or bread-based. (I) Don’t really see a lot of green.” In addition, Cordelia expressed that the pay-by-weight system prevalent at the dining hall can be harmful for people who are self-conscious or struggling with body image. Through the weighing of food, insecurities can be amplified, and some students may feel pressured to eat less.
From the interviews above, it is clear that students experience vastly different eating experiences and struggles based on their living arrangements, meal plans, lifestyles, and more. Many issues raised by the interviewees were college-specific, while others applied to all of U of T. All in all, there are prevalent issues regarding U of T’s food services that necessitate further discussion and the implementation of systemic, sustainable changes.
With students generally either having way more money on their plan than they can hope to ever spend, or not enough money that they must limit their food intake, it is evident that U of T meal plans do not currently meet the needs of students. Increased tuition support and more affordable food on campus are key to combatting food insecurity. Also, increased options for on-campus dining will allow students greater flexibility over their eating choices, not to mention reduce the need for ordering or travelling off campus for food. Finally, it is essential that we de-stigmatize discussions on food insecurity and dissatisfaction, which can lead us toward more supportive communities and proactive solutions.
So, the next time you cannot pacify your growling stomach, don’t feel the need to stay silent about it. The louder we speak up, the quieter our stomachs will one day become.