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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Unprecedented demand drives student food bank into $200,000 deficit

So far, no change in commitments from UVic despite calls from student unions to help plug the deficit and provide fundraising support.

By Michael John Lo
December 13, 2022
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Unprecedented demand drives student food bank into $200,000 deficit

So far, no change in commitments from UVic despite calls from student unions to help plug the deficit and provide fundraising support.

By Michael John Lo
Dec 13, 2022
The UVSS Food Bank and Free Store, closed on a Monday afternoon. Photo: Provided / Lane O'Hara Cooke
The UVSS Food Bank and Free Store, closed on a Monday afternoon. Photo: Provided / Lane O'Hara Cooke
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Unprecedented demand drives student food bank into $200,000 deficit

So far, no change in commitments from UVic despite calls from student unions to help plug the deficit and provide fundraising support.

By Michael John Lo
December 13, 2022
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Unprecedented demand drives student food bank into $200,000 deficit
The UVSS Food Bank and Free Store, closed on a Monday afternoon. Photo: Provided / Lane O'Hara Cooke

Misao Dean is now sharing survival tips in her English literature classes. The professor, now in her 33rd year at UVic, has begun including cost-effective recipes into her curriculum to help her students as the cost of living drives more and more students to the campus food bank.

“It’s true that it’s a bit of a cliche that students eat ramen and Kraft Dinner, but I don’t remember that for myself,” Dean said.

Dean usually arrives to class early so she has time for informal chats with students. Lately, she’s been hearing how the price of food—and virtually everything else—has gone up. More than a few students have told Dean that they started the school semester without a place to live.

“It’s very different from when I went to school, where I would have [had] a choice of a few places,” Dean said.

“I don’t know how to help with many of these other things,” she added. "But one of the things I am good at is cooking cheaply.”

Dean has posted three of her recipes in her second-year English class webpage. Students have written back, sharing photos and feedback of her recipes. (There’s a copy of her red lentil soup recipe attached to the end of this article.)

But even though she regularly hears about student struggles, Dean was shocked to learn that the campus food bank is facing a deficit of $200,000 following unprecedented demand.

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“Prior to 2020, the food bank was really sustaining themselves on student fees,” said Kyla Turner, the graduate union’s executive director. Last week, the Graduate Student Society (GSS) voted to transfer $40,000 to the food bank to help fill in the deficit. But it doesn’t quite cover the threefold increase of students using the campus food bank.

“The general rising cost of living has [left] people...very broke, to being really quite food insecure and living well below the poverty line,” Turner said.

Graduate students are more likely to have families and are carrying more student debt than undergraduate students, so it’s more likely that they are relying on supports like food banks to keep themselves and their families afloat while attending school, Turner said.

“They’re the backbone of who’s making the university work,” she said. “They’re teaching undergraduate courses, they’re also the ones actually conducting research that’s happening in labs across campus.”

But the money from 20 hours of working as a teaching assistant on campus isn’t enough, Turner said. “The reality of the situation is quite different from what it was even a decade ago,” she added. “Students have not been able to keep up.”

Graduate students make up the largest group of University of Victoria Students’ Society food bank users at 38.7%. Undergraduates make up 24.8% of the demand, with the rest of the usage coming from other educational streams such as continuing studies and diploma programs. More than 60% of food bank users are students with families. International students—who pay around three or four times as much as a domestic student depending on the program—have been hit the hardest, and make up around 83% of food bank users. That's up from 2020, when international students made up half of the school's food bank users.

The UVic Students' Society (UVSS) Food Bank and Free Store is on the maze-like basement floor of UVic’s Student Union Building. If it’s open, the line of waiting students spills out into the hallway, sometimes nearly reaching the stairs. But more often than not, students arrive to find a closed door. The campus food bank is run by a part-time staff of three students, and its staffing and operations are primarily funded by student levies. Apart from the occasional partnership with local businesses and external donations, it’s all students helping students.

The food bank was launched by UVSS in 2004 as an emergency response to student food insecurity. The ‘emergency’ part was dropped ten years later in 2014, when students voted for a student levy to change it into a permanent, regular service provided through the student union.

But now, the funding just isn't enough.

More than half of UVic undergraduate students are facing severe to moderate levels of food insecurity, according to a recently conducted UVSS survey on student affordability—yet to be published—shared by UVSS director Izzy Adachi.

“We fundamentally understand this food insecurity crisis to be an issue that unites all students at UVic,” said UVSS finance director Lane O’Hara Cooke.

But UVSS directors say that efforts to reach an agreement with UVic to provide support to the food bank have been met with little success. Adachi said that a Dec. 7 meeting between UVic administration and student representatives —the first that has been attended by UVic president Kevin Hall this school year—ended without any commitments from the university.

The two student unions on campus are asking the university to provide a one-time $150,000-donation to cover the remainder of this year’s deficit, and for UVic to divert 100 hours of fundraising labour from UVic’s fundraising operations to raise funds for the UVSS food bank.

This year, donors gave the university $33.5M.

Adachi says that the 90-minute virtual meeting was largely taken up by a one-hour presentation from the university, leaving only 10 minutes to talk about their concerns on food insecurity and affordability.

Cooke said she still had her zoom hand indicator raised when the meeting was closed by UVic. Her intended question: “I would like them to list off all of the projects and priorities that are more important and more vital than making sure that students are fed.”

“If you cannot afford to support your students in the most basic human way possible, you’re doing something wrong. And students are desperately in need right now,” Cooke said.

UVic is projected to lose $17 million this year and has cut budgets and halted non-critical hiring in an attempt to balance the budget. BC Universities are required by law to not lose money, though this rule was relaxed in 2021 due to the pandemic.

When asked for comment, UVic did not provide a direct response to questions about what the university will be doing to support the student food bank.

“UVic is committed to supporting students throughout their academic journeys. With the rising costs of housing, child care and food, affordability is a significant issue for our students,” said UVic associate director of public affairs Kirsten Lauvass in an email statement Dec. 7. “We are working closely with the UVSS and GSS to explore options for addressing this challenge on our campus.”

“The UVSS food bank and free store has long been an excellent support for students and others on campus and we’re committed to working with them to help address food security issues,” the statement continued.

Lauvass also pointed out the various existing university supports, such as scholarships, bursaries, and work opportunities on campus. Available bursaries—many which are funded by donors and have various qualifying requirements—disbursed a combined total of $2.6 million in 2022.

To combat food insecurity, UVic launched a meal share program in October, where enrolled students can receive a maximum of $50 per semester to spend on university-specific food outlets. The project is being funded by donations from students, staff, and faculty across campus.  

In addition, “Stocktober,” a long-running staff and faculty fundraising event, raised a historic $15,000 along with additional food donations for the student food bank.

The Stocktober donations are certainly appreciated, said Adachi, though she raises reservations about the new meal share program, which locks its funds to UVic-contracted food outlets on campus. “That’s like, five sandwiches,” she said.

As a last resort, the UVSS is willing to cover the deficit from the union’s general operations fund. It’s not ideal, said Cooke: the union’s financial health will only be able to sustain about two years of that before going into a financial crisis.

“I don’t know if it’s not being understood properly, or if we’re not communicating properly,  but it’s really a now or never situation,” Cooke said.

In a statement to its members, the Graduate Students Society said it was considering increasing student fees to pay for the food bank.

“At the end of the day, we know that is just the poor feeding the poor,” the statement said.

Turner said the Graduate Students' Society will look at long-term solutions once emergency funding is in place.

“No matter what it takes for this year, we’re going to keep things going," she said.

//

Dean Misao’s easy non-spicy red lentil soup recipe

2 cups red lentils
8 cups water – add chicken or veggie broth cubes, if you have them

carrots
1 yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
2 tbsp. fresh rosemary
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 lemons – for zest & juice
feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
olive oil

Tips for shopping: if you like carrots, add lots (four or five). If you don't especially, two is plenty.

Rosemary: if you live downtown, you can get this fresh at many of the little free gardens on the sidewalk. If you live in the burbs, look at the front gardens of your neighbours. Vic West, you can get it at the community garden around the corner from Frye's Bakery. One good sized sprig should do it. If not, add a little dried rosemary -- maybe half a teaspoon -- along with the lentils.

Chop the onion into smallish pieces (dice); heat a good sized pot on your stove and saute the onion with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Dice the carrot and smash and peel the garlic; add them to the pot. Sprinkle in some red pepper flakes, if you like them, along with some chopped rosemary.

Carefully wash the lentils -- do this by putting them in a bowl, filling it with water and draining several times. Then add the lentils to the pot along with six cups of water, and some stock cubes. Boil on medium heat until the lentils are soft, maybe 15-20 minutes. Check, and if it gets too thick to be a soup, add more water.

Stir in the lemon juice and the zest, and taste to see if it needs more salt, or more pepper flakes. Serve in bowls, and crumble some feta on top, if you can afford it.

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