Campus LifeNews

Campus Food Bank Executive Director says staff worry about meeting the ever increasing demand

To meet ever increasing demand the CFB has had to increase food purchasing significantly.

As demand continues to rise, the Campus Food Bank (CFB) is struggling to meet the needs of their clients. The majority of the CFB’s clients are international students, CFB Executive Director Erin O’Neil said.  

According to O’Neil, the CFB has experienced an unprecedented increase in demand over the past two years. Two years ago, the CFB served approximately 200 people per month, O’Neil said. From September 2022 to August 2023, the CFB served 2,423 individuals, more than double from the previous year. 

More than 70 per cent of these individuals were new clients. As a result, the CFB has had to increase food purchasing, and even turn people away from accessing their services, O’Neil said.

The CFB is spending approximately $12,000 to $14,000 on food per month

According to O’Neil, donations to the CFB are insufficient to meet demand. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the CFB spent a total of  $23,722 on food. In 2022-2023, that number more than quadrupled, amounting to $109,400.

At the beginning of this fiscal year, O’Neil said the CFB increased its food-spending projections to $10,000 per month to meet anticipated demand. Now,  the CFB is finding this number is not high enough, O’Neil said. Currently, the CFB is spending approximately $12,000 to $14,000 a month on food.

As well, the CFB needs to meet the dietary requirements of their clients, which are often diverse. When this happens, the CFB has to purchase food to fill in the gap, O’Neil said. Approximately 30 per cent of the CFB’s clients follow a Halal diet, according to O’Neil. Currently, the CFB does not receive enough Halal food donations to meet demand. 

“We definitely have a lot of demand for those special types of food products. But we aren’t able to get much of that in for free, so we’re purchasing it.”

In Alberta, food donations are redistributed to the various food banks in the province. O’Neil explained that some donations come from grocery stores that are no longer able to sell these products.

“We end up spending money on those unique categories where grocery stores aren’t getting rid of that stock and donating it to food banks. It’s premium stock for them. It’s a low-profit margin.”

Fresh produce is another item that is rarely donated to the CFB, but is important to keep in stock, O’Neil explained. This means they have to purchase fresh produce themselves. 

“Especially in a university environment, we want healthy, nutritious foods so that people’s brains  are working as well as they can.”

International students remain the highest percentage of CFB clients

According to the CFB’s Spring 2023 Client Survey, 70.3 per cent of those surveyed identified as international students. According to O’Neil, several factors contribute to food insecurity for international students. 

At the time of the interview, the federal government required international students to prove that they have $10,000 in their bank account before they accept their university offer. Beginning in 2024, that amount will be $20,635. This is in addition to the tuition fees they will pay. O’Neil said $10,000 is “comically little money” for the length of time it takes to finish a degree.

 As well, the federal government extended a waiver that allows international students to work more than 20 hours. They previously increased the limit to 40 hours per week during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was previously expected that this waiver would expire at the end of 2023.

“They’re coming in. They don’t have enough money saved up and brought in with them. And then, they can’t work enough to meet the budget shortfall that they have,” O’Neil said.

In the last few years, O’Neil has begun hearing from international students from countries with currency issues. As a result, they are finding “their purchasing power is greatly reduced.”

“[International students] are making incredible sacrifices with that end goal in mind,” O’Neil says

O’Neil said the CFB supports many international graduate students and their families. According to O’Neil, these students often come to Canada to study with the hopes of gaining permanent residency. 

“They are making incredible sacrifices with that end goal in mind. We’re seeing graduate students who are unfunded. They came here without an offer because they wanted to find a better life for themselves and their families,” O’Neil said.

Currently, the U of A is proposing raising international tuition by five per cent in 2025-2026. Despite the amount international students pay in tuition, O’Neil said they often are without support.

“It is, I think, morally questionable that Canadian universities are maintaining their budgets by increasing international student tuition, and then leaving students to their own devices without any sort of network of support.”

O’Neil thinks to alleviate the financial burdens on international students, two things would have to happen. Firstly, the provincial government would have to increase funding for post-secondary institutions. Secondly, the U of A would need to prioritize “the collective health of its community.”

CFB runs toy drive, gives specialty items for the holiday season

Last year, to prepare for the holiday season closure, the CFB gave families twice as much food in the two preceding weeks. Due to demand, O’Neil said this year they “literally don’t have enough room to have that much food in stock.” As well, doing this would take them beyond their food budget.

“This year we’re choosing between a few specialty items where everyone who comes in will get something extra for the holidays,” O’Neil said. “But our food purchasing is already so far past our projections from even six months ago, that we’re not able to increase our total amounts in the same way as last year.”

The CFB ran a toy drive through the end of November and beginning of December. Currently, the CFB feeds about 245 children. According to O’Neil, this is up from 200 children last year. Additionally, more than half of these children are under the age of three.

Food pantry “will fill a gap in food access on campus”

The CFB is opening up a new community pantry in January, located in the atrium between Rutherford North and South. The pantry will be in the glass structure that used to house a printing press, the Rutherford Library Galleria. The pantry will be accessible with a OneCard. 

O’Neil said the pantry “will fill a gap in food access on campus” for people who don’t need a whole week’s worth of groceries. 

“[Say] they don’t get paid for two more days and this has been a particularly tough pay period. So they’re just gonna stop by the pantry and grab a couple packages of pasta and tomato sauce on their way home. It’s meant to [fill] more of an emergency need.”

Increased demand putting staff and volunteers at risk of burnout

According to O’Neil, increased demand has affected staff and volunteers. Volunteers are encountering more scenarios where they have to have “difficult conversations.”

“It is more emotionally draining because our volunteers are having to say no to people, because we’re so full. Or tell people, ‘we can’t actually let you come in because you missed your appointment.’”

As well, O’Neil said staff are at a high risk of burnout. Two years ago, the CFB employed two full-time staff and two part-time staff. Now, they employ three full-time staff and three part-time staff. As well, O’Neil said staff worry about a continued increase in demand.

“This is the third fall where we’ve had just incredible growth. If that happens again next year, this space will absolutely not be big enough to meet demand right now.”

Dylana Twittey

Dylana Twittey is the 2024-25 Managing Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 News Editor. She is a second-year student studying history. In her free time, she enjoys watching 90s Law and Order, cooking, and rereading her favourite books for the fifth time.

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