Too many students at the University of Alberta are experiencing food insecurity, according to the authors of a new study, which finds that a lack of access to adequate nutrition is affecting not only students’ health but their academics, as well.
Food insecurity is a real health and social issue for some people within Canada’s most vulnerable populations. An estimated one in eight Canadian households now experiences some level of food insecurity, representing over four million adults and children.
Here, as in other developed countries, the phenomenon is attributable to not having enough money to buy sufficient healthy food. Residents in Canada’s three territories, for example, face high food prices at the grocery store, which contributes to the highest food insecurity rates across the country, as much as 45 per cent of the population in some locations.
Studies have shown that food insecurity is linked with a range of negative health outcomes such as poorer general and mental health and multiple chronic health ailments. And while the problem can arise for people with many different income and social brackets, food insecurity disproportionately affects low-waged workers, single parents, recent immigrants and those on social assistance.
University students can be hit by the problem, too. Last year, a survey by the national campus food organization called Meal Exchange found that 39 per cent of 4,013 students surveyed at five Canadian universities said that they either compromised on the quality of food they ate or worried about running out of food. Almost half of those surveyed said that they had gone without food at some point in order to pay for rent, tuition or books.
The issue has become more prevalent in recent years, as high tuition costs push students further into poverty, say the authors of a new study from the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the U of A, where the first post-secondary food bank opened in 1991. “Over the last 20 years, government funding for postsecondary education in Canada has been declining,” say the study’s authors. “To counter this reduction in funding, universities are increasing tuition and compulsory fees for domestic students, making a university education less affordable for students from low- and median-income households.”
Researchers surveyed 58 students at the University of Alberta who used the campus food bank, looking at their level of food security and its impact on the students’ overall health and academics. While the majority of students reported having good or excellent mental and physical health, in comparison to the general student population, the food bank users were more likely to report either poor or fair mental and physical health.
As well, a majority (60 per cent) of students surveyed said that they had at least one adverse academic experience as a result of not having enough money for food, running from not being able to concentrate in class or to complete a course assignment due to food insecurity issues to having failed or been forced to withdraw from a class.
The results show that too many students on campus are being hindered by not having enough money for food, say the researchers.
“The findings reported here suggest that food insecurity among student clients of the campus food bank at UAlberta is a serious issue that needs to be considered by campus administrators,” say the study’s authors.