Piece of the Puzzle

The Campus Food Bank is expanding its programs to help increase students’ food security, giving them energy to focus on their studies

Fernanda Talarico loves organizing and sorting food items as a volunteer with the Campus Food Bank at the University of Alberta, where she’s a PhD student about to graduate. But it’s also rewarding because she’s giving back to a program that helped her and her husband when they first arrived as international students from Brazil in 2019.

“We didn’t know anything about Canada. I wish we had like a Canada 101 type of thing,” says Talarico.

It was a surprise when they needed a deposit for their apartment on top of rent, and they struggled with budgeting for skyrocketing food prices. But the Campus Food Bank provided immediate relief, especially in the form of basics like rice, beans and tomato sauce. The couple also didn’t know where to find inexpensive food. Erin O’Neil, executive director of the Campus Food Bank, says these challenges are incredibly common. Demand for its services has grown significantly — in 2021-2022, the food bank gave twice as many hampers as compared to the previous year.

Four years ago, says O’Neil, tuition increased and the U of A lost millions in provincial grants, resulting in fewer resources. International students — who make up about 70 per cent of the food bank’s clientele — especially suffered as they lost supports that would explain things like the cost of groceries or how to rent an apartment or even direct them towards the food bank. These students also struggled to budget appropriately because prices are increasing so incredibly quickly.

“Food insecurity is just one piece of an affordability puzzle. But if we can remove the stress around food for students then at least it lowers their stress overall and they can have that energy to focus on advocating for themselves in other ways,” says O’Neil.

Erin O’Neil. Photo by Mat Simpson

The Campus Food Bank has students do price comparisons with grocery stores and consistently the ones closest to the campus are the most expensive. In response, the food bank started a grocery bus service four years ago that transports students to several more affordable options in the city including grocery stores, a spice centre and a halal butcher. Talarico used the service in the past and said it was incredibly helpful.

“It used to be a fairly lightly used service. But the demand for it went up maybe three times last year because of grocery inflation,” says O’Neil. It’s especially popular with students who are not originally from Edmonton — so those like Talarico who rely on public transit and have no one to drive them to far-away stores.

Now, the Campus Food Bank, with help from a $7,000 grant from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), plans to expand that bus service to Campus Saint-Jean, in addition to a breakfast program that expanded to the University’s French campus last year. The Cinders Fund, a family fund stewarded by ECF, has supported the breakfast program for the past three years and recently agreed to double its contribution to support programming at Campus Saint-Jean.

The ECF Small Grants program also provided $10,000 to the food bank to pay students professional rates to help with the design of a pantry project. This initiative provides 24/7 access for donations and pickup of fresh food and non-perishable items.

After COVID-19 restrictions, O’Neil noticed a concerning trend — many programs that had been shuttered were struggling to come back. That, she says, is due to several factors including about 2,000 layoffs that happened over the past three years that affected student support staff from course selection to financial aid to mental health support. She started looking at feedback and where help was most needed.

“It was apparent that Campus Saint-Jean was getting minimal food security support after the lockdown break. We decided the breakfast program was the easiest first try for the campus. Then, through that relationship with the staff we heard that the grocery bus had not started back up and they didn’t have funds,” says O’Neil.

While the breakfast program is a stop, grab-and-go type thing, it’s developed into a social hangout at Campus Saint-Jean. That also allows students to learn more about the food bank and the other services they provide, says O’Neil; and it’s something that had been missing in the last few years. The Campus Food Bank has been around since 1991 when it was primarily about providing food to graduate students. But in the past decade, the focus has shifted to include food education, workshops, providing students with culturally appropriate foods — including freshly grown herbs — and snack stations.

Photo by Mat Simpson

“We’ve been able to [help] people who are concerned about their food intake but maybe are OK with getting themselves groceries here or there. Or they don’t know how to cook for themselves or meal planning is tough, those sorts of things,” says O’Neil. “We are trying to diversify our program to support as many different people’s situations as possible.”

At the time of the interview, Talarico was just one week away from starting a new job as a biostatistician at a pharmacy. She still loves being part of the Campus Food Bank community where she says it’s just an incredibly welcoming space. The food bank leads projects to determine what culturally rich foods to include on their shelves; they provide food and supplies like diapers to families; and even play music that comes from different parts of the world.

“They really care about other cultures and welcoming different people,” says Talarico. “I honestly love going there.”

This story comes from the Winter 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full magazine.