https://toronto.citynews.ca/2022/09/16/food-insecurity-university-of-toronto-resident-dons/

Expensive meal plans and a lack of access to healthy options are affecting some University of Toronto students and leading to food insecurity, prompting some to even seek out food banks, according to a number of resident advisors and dons.

These dons say they have attempted to flag the issue to school officials, but the university has not been responsive.

Because of the food insecurity issue, many banded together towards the end of the school year last year to create a makeshift food bank for students.

Sean Ihn, who spent three years as a resident don for Chestnut Residence between 2019 and 2022, said dons at Chestnut and Chelsea Residences organized the food bank after witnessing several students unable to afford healthy meals.

“Students in [Chelsea Hotel] residence were experiencing severe food insecurity where they couldn’t afford the high price of meals that were being offered at Chelsea Hotel, leading to a lot of students resorting to unhealthy means of foods or unsustainable means of foods,” said Ihn.

He said they got the majority of their food from other students who donated their leftover food dollars on their plans.

As meal plans for Chestnut residents are mandatory and cost between $5,400 to $6,600, many students are left with extra cash at the end of the school year, and are not able get all their money back.

In some cases if they can’t use up these dollars, the university keeps it.

Dons at Chestnut and Chelsea would purchase large amounts of freshly made meals and snacks from Chestnut dining hall using the donated funds and transport them to Chelsea Hotel Residence, about 15 minutes away .

Ihn said they spent over $15,000 of leftover student funds on the food bank initiative. He said it was heartwarming to see how many students wanted to get involved and help.

“Seeing a community come together like recognizing that the institution that we should look to for proper support and help was not actually there looking out for the best interests of the students, unfortunately, and having a community of students actually stand up and organize something that’s more than just meant so much,” said Ihn.

Tuneesha, an international student, who lived at the Chelsea Hotel Residence in her first year, said accessing the food provided by the dons allowed her to not only have an opportunity to save money but also have access to more nutritious meals throughout the day.

Tuneesha had decided against purchasing a meal plan because of the commute to campus and opted to buy meals at the Eaton Centre or rely on student discounts at grocery stores in order to feed herself.

“I was very conscious about how much money I spent,” said Tuneesha. “I would buy one big meal and split it into two smaller meals. Typically my days consisted of two meals, I would skip breakfast.”

Giovanna Mello, a second-year student at U of T, lived at Chelsea Hotel during her first year of school. The hotel, which is located about 20 minutes from campus, was used as extra accommodation for students starting last year.

Because it is located off campus, Chelsea Hotel does not offer a meal plan, but students are able to access the optional commuter meal plans through U of T food services. Those who live in the residence can also purchase meals at the Chelsea Market Garden cafeteria and receive a 20 per cent discount.

According to U of T, a commuter meal plan allows you to purchase food from a variety of different dining halls and restaurants on campus and works similarly to a debit card. A certain amount of money is loaded on the card and then spent throughout the year.

Prices at the garden cafeteria, the only dine-in location for Chelsea Hotel residents, were close to $18 to $20 with a limited number of options, according to the residence dons.

Mello chose a one-semester meal plan that cost $2,825.

“I wasn’t sure how much food I would actually be eating in the cafeteria. So I thought I better start small and add more later. And that semester option actually lasted me almost like a semester and a half,” she explained.

Once she hit that halfway mark of second semester and realized her account was dwindling, she said the stress of budgeting for food was rough on top of the schoolwork.

“It’s always going to be on my mind is budgeting and making sure I’m keeping track of what I’m eating because I can’t spend too much money, and you have to make sure you’re eating the right amount every day.”

She said the price of food had a big impact on her budgeting.

“I feel like there could be a lot more that can be done in terms of pricing of food and things like that. Because some students may have it worse than me in terms of the amount of access to food and money. So if I had to go through this, imagine people who have even less, so I think pricing definitely should be reconsidered.”

Mello avoided larger ticket food items and often bought side salads in order to make her meal plan last. She ended up having to add an extra $1,200 to her meal plan and said the food initiative provided by the dons was a really important resource when she was struggling.

Students not meeting expectations as a result of food insecurity

A former Chelsea Hotel Residence don, who asked to remain anonymous because they don’t want their future employment compromised, said they experienced food insecurity while they were a student living in Chestnut Residence.

“When I went to Chelsea Residence as a don, the food problem was even worse. Chelsea Residence is the hotel, and while it is affordable to eat there for the hotel guests, the prices were not adjusted to meet students’ needs,” they said.

“So as the don, as a student, there was no way I could afford to eat nutritious meals at Chelsea Hotel Residence.”

“A lot of students do not perform to their full potential, just because they’re hungry, or experienced depression, anxiety and other mental health complications and that can be solved with access to affordable foods,” said the Chelsea Residence don.

Ihn said he believes student wellness has not been a priotity for the school.

“It just seems like the problem comes from a place where it seems very profit-driven, rather than student-driven or oriented towards student wellness.”

Ihn said he believes student wellness has not been a priority for the school.

CityNews reached out to U of T regarding complaints about the food plans and whether anything is being done to address concerns surrounding costs. In a statement, they said it is the policy of U of T that no student offered admission to a program at the university “should be unable to enter or complete the program due to a lack of financial means.

“Qualifying students are supported by a significant financial aid program of grants and bursaries, as well as programs to support student life to ensure overall affordability,” a school spokesperson said.

They added that students could contact Food Services or their residence office at any time to discuss their plan and “specific circumstances.”

“Students experiencing financial difficulties are encouraged to contact the Registrar’s office to discuss their financial needs and the financial assistance available to support them.”

Dons claim university not responding to food insecurity concerns

Mike Lawler, a residence don for Chestnut Residence, said he participated in the student food committee in the 2020/2021 school year, which didn’t run in 2021/2022 due to “low interest,” he claimed.

He said while asking questions related to food — for example, affordability — he was told to stop asking questions.

“Many other students and I also face consistently absurd response times — often weeks or months — for senior administrators to respond to basic emails regarding questions and concerns,” Lawler said.

The dons say they requested for data to be collected at the school so there could be a better understanding of how many students are impacted by food insecurity.

Lawler added it was clearly communicated from dons at Chelsea that students were struggling to afford food prices.

“There was zero commitment to provide any additional kitchen infrastructure other than the existing two microwaves [for 400+ students], nor was there any reduction in prices this year,” explained Lawler.

Ihn also noted the lack of culinary infrastructure for Chelsea students, along with food insecurity, forced them into eating “subpar, really nutritionally devoid food,” because healthy options were either unaffordable or unavailable.

The Chelsea Hotel don said they also sat in on these food committees, which attempted to “fix some of the issues.”

“I don’t think that the university cares about students well-being at all because this issue hasn’t been addressed,” they said. “The university just doesn’t listen to student opinions.”

In surveying students experiencing eating on campus, Lawler said he found equity-seeking populations tended to have the highest rates of food insecurity.

“With the university as large and as impactful as U of T, when we kind of make this campaign to ensure affordable food, and it doesn’t happen, it’s not simply an issue of food. It’s also an issue of equity,” Lawler noted.

“When we’re talking about student food insecurity, one of my concerns, and I think it’s shared by many people at the university, is that there’s a real lack of acknowledgement that the university as an institution has an obligation to their students to provide affordable food,” said Ihn.

Ihn said when concerns have been brought to administrators, they were unresponsive. “Students are communicating directly with us that they’re really struggling, that they are worried about their finances.”

Concerns of food insecurity at post-secondary schools have been a topic for conversation for years.

While Daily Bread Food Bank says they do not track overall numbers specifically for students at all their food programs, they have several on-site food banks at colleges and universities in Toronto, including U of T, that see 1,000 to 1,300 student visits monthly.

The Daily Bread Food Bank say studies show rates of food insecurity are much higher among international students and racialized students (especially Indigenous and Black students).