University food banks: needed but not noticed

Father Randy Hendricks is trying to increase awareness about SMU's food bank. (Photo: Monica Riehl)

It is not supposed to be a secret, but judging by the minimal traffic, it is relatively unknown that several post-secondary institutions in Nova Scotia have food banks.

There are five university food banks in Metro Halifax. Four are member agencies of Feed Nova Scotia and receive most food donations from this charitable distribution centre. One university - Saint Mary's - operates independently.

Approximately 8,500 students attend SMU, but its food bank only helps around 10 to 15 students each month.

"We need to do a better job at marketing ourselves," says Father Randy Hendricks, who runs SMU's food bank located in the chaplaincy office.

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This chart shows the weekly cost for typical university-aged students as found in the most recent reports based on the National Nutritional Food Basket. (Chart: Monica Riehl)

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Dalhousie University's student union stepped up the promotion of its food bank this year, and vice-president internal Kayla Kurin says there has been an increase.

But Dalhousie's food bank only assists around 100 students each month during the school year (30 per month during the summer months of May through August) out of its approximate 15,500 full and part-time students. Its location is somewhat challenging to find in the basement of the SUB building, past the bookstore and with no obvious signage.

Meeting the need

Father Hendricks hopes that setting up a booth at school next year will help let students know about the food bank. If necessary, he would seek out more funding to meet increased demand.

"If we are not aware of a need, we can't meet the need."

The low number of university food bank clients is not an indication of a lack of need. Post-secondary students, burdened with high tuition costs, are a group that struggles to afford a basic nutritious diet.

The HungryCount survey shows that 1.1 per cent of over 790,000 Canadians that needed food bank assistance in 2009 were students relying on student loans for income. At this time of year, before many students return home for the holidays, funds from student loans dry up and food banks see an increase in student clientele.

The Nova Scotia Participatory Food Security Projects studies the needs of people living in Nova Scotia and the cost of food based on Health Canada's National Nutritious Food Basket (NNFB). The NNFB lists 66 foods used to calculate the cost of a basic nutritious diet for 23 age groups and genders.

The project identifies university students with children as the most vulnerable people in the province that struggle with basic nutrition. Last year's figures indicate that this group would require $673.62 per month to meet NNFB needs, but has only $251.90 for groceries after expenses. This puts students with families potentially $421.72 in debt each month, and makes it very difficult to provide a healthy diet.

Help from Feed NS

Feed Nova Scotia helps anyone experiencing food insecurity in the province. It distributes over two million kilograms of food each year to member agencies, and it organizes donations based on Canada's Food Guidelines to help provide healthy diets.

"We are really fortunate to get fresh items," says Karen Theriault at Feed Nova Scotia.

She says 854,000 kilograms of food distributed is non-perishable. Perishable items amounts to 1,044,000 kilograms and 46,000 kilograms is prepared food from participating hotels and hospitals.

Donations that Dalhousie food bank receives from Feed Nova Scotia is not pre-selected so students can load one grocery bag - or more depending on their needs - with the items they want.

SMU's food bank has its own way of doing things.

"We've shifted more towards the giving of grocery cards because then the students get what they want," says Father Hendricks.

He says that about 80 per cent of the donations for the food bank are monetary. Previously they would go out and buy food to stock the food bank. They saw the gift cards as a way to meet the needs of students and allow them to buy fresh milk, meat, fruits and vegetables.

Feed Nova Scotia says there are times when they also provide gift vouchers for food, but not typically.

"If any particular food bank has the opportunity to do that, I think that's wonderful," says Theriault.

Students in need can visit SMU's chaplaincy office for a $25 gift card for groceries. Cards are given once a month with basic identification.

Father Hendricks says this system evolved in the last term "because we have to be good stewards of our resources." But he says they don't ask a lot of questions, or require additional information, even if the person in need is not a student.

"It's mainly students, but sometimes someone else will come in and we will try to help, or connect them to the right place."

With SMU and Dalhousie closing for the holidays, the food banks shut down too. Students can still contact their offices for assistance, and anyone struggling with food insecurity can call Feed Nova Scotia's help line at 421-1188.


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