Food security is as challenging as ever for students at UBC

As the rising cost of food continues to affect Canadian residents, university students—like those attending UBC—are some of the hardest hit, having to navigate substantial demands on both time and money. Amid both rising usage of the Alma Mater Society (AMS) food bank at the school and inflation driving up food prices across the country in recent years, the question of food security has come into even sharper perspective for students at UBC.

Despite various concerted efforts, ranging from protests to open letters addressed to university executives, issues like high food prices and poor access to nutritious meals continue to affect many at the university. One recent survey by the AMS, UBC’s student union, revealed that around 40 per cent of responding UBC students worried, at least once a month, about being able to afford groceries.

A scene from last years Hungry For Change walkout protest at UBC. | Photo courtesy of Sprouts-UBC

Many international students who face higher costs of living and tuition than domestic students have been hit even harder by rising food prices. Bismah Mughal, an international student from Pakistan says she was “shocked” at the food insecurity she has faced since coming to UBC. Mughal emphasized the need for UBC to oversee and potentially regulate the pricing policies of on-campus grocery providers.

“Students do not make that much money, so UBC should help in controlling the prices,” said Mughal.

In a joint statement to The Source, UBC Vancouver’s associate vice president of student health and wellbeing Noorjean Hassam, and UBC Okanagan’s director of wellbeing and accessibility services, Gaya Arasaratnam said UBC is “committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of our campus community.” They note that UBC’s efforts have launched the UBC Food Security Initiative, which has itself launched a meal share program and a digital Food Hub for information and resources, and supported various student and faculty projects.

The statement also highlights the UBC Board of Governors’ allotment of $800,000 this year for food security initiatives across UBC’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses for student-led food security programs and services, including the AMS Food Bank.

Student-led initiatives have yielded some effective solutions for students. For instance, Sprouts, a student volunteer-based initiative funded by that allotment, has been offering a spectrum of services to the UBC community for more than two decades, including weekly community meals, free daily food offerings, and a community fridge.

Sprouts is one of a number of student led organizations tackling food insecurity at UBC. | Photo courtesy of Sprouts UBC

Unfortunately, such initiatives face their own challenges. Harper Johnston, co-president of Sprouts, thinks the funding is helpful, but it means that students volunteering on their own time are often carrying the burden of helping their fellow classmates.

“We are happy to be here to do this work, but it shouldn’t be out of necessity. I feel like in some ways the university relies on us to do things like this for free,” said Johnston. “[I would] love to see the institution take some long-term action on their own instead of relying on student-run food security initiatives.”

And while total funding for Sprouts and other student-led initiatives has increased since the 2021/2022 academic year, much of that funding comes from of one-time allocations. For Johnston, this kind of funding strategy makes the long-term feel uncertain.

“This should be tackled with permanent funding, rather than just temporary funding. And what was frustrating was having to worry that, maybe next year, we’d have to shorten our services or no longer be able to provide free meals at all,” says Johnston.

The UBC statement adds that the university is committed to evaluating existing initiatives through feedback, and expressed a commitment to tackling the root causes of student food insecurity while providing immediate support to the students currently affected by this issue.

Lastly, Johnston also notes the challenging social stigma surrounding food insecurity, saying that many people “don’t consider themselves to be food insecure, even when they are.” This stigma affects students like Mughal, who says she hesitates to use the resources available on campus for food security.

“I feel like it’s not right for me to take resources from others who need it more,” she said.

A national problem

The challenges students face fall within a broader Canadian conversation about food affordability. In September, François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry met with top executives of Canada’s five largest grocery chains and urged the industry to promptly address Canada’s rising food prices.

A government press release later stated that Minister Champagne had secured some “initial commitments” from the top five chains, but a Canadian Press inquiry showed that grocers were hesitant to announce the actual details of those commitments. Grocers have since been called back to testify to Parliament about those commitments.

But for James Vercammen, a professor at UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, this governmental initiative is little more than “political theatre”, and that focusing only on grocery chains oversimplifies the issue. He says rising costs can’t be primarily tied to excessive profit margins or commodity costs, and are more likely tied to rising wages within the supply chain itself.

In all, Vercammen thinks we are in too deep for grocer-targeted policy changes to really tackle the core of these rising costs.

“I think the only thing we can really count on is the Bank of Canada interest rates are finally going to create a recession. A recession will certainly tamp down inflation,” said Vercammen.

But Vercammen agrees that students are often hit hardest by these challenges, having to balance their academic pursuits with working more hours to afford food. So while there are no easy outs on a national level, Vercammen thinks more could be done for students at UBC.

Some actions Vercammen suggests include tackling the costliness of food waste, establishing cost-effective cafeterias, and introducing more food trucks during the summer, making good use of the revenue generated.

“If you can’t make money from 50,000 captured people on campus with very [few] places to go, then you’re doing something wrong,” he said.

But for now, in order to find affordable and varied options, students must spend precious money, or time, finding better alternatives. For Mughal, that means commuting for 1 hour and 30 minutes to find affordable food off-campus, or paying more for food on campus.

“I never do grocery shopping on campus,” says Mughal. “It is way more expensive than outside and it is not diverse enough.”

Below is a UBC-provided list of resources for students dealing with food insecurity or financial hardship.

Vancouver campus
Food access support:
Enrolment Services Advisors:
Financial emergencies:
Okanagan campus
Food access support:
Student Records and Financial Services:
Financial emergencies: