Rising food insecurity among international students sparks concerns in Canada

The University of Alberta is witnessing a significant rise in food bank usage by international students, reflecting a broader national crisis of student food insecurity. Over 70 percent of the university’s Campus Food Bank clients are international students, struggling with high tuition fees and living costs.

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The University of Alberta’s Campus Food Bank has reported a significant increase in international students seeking assistance. Over 70 percent of the CFB’s clientele are international students. 

This trend is not unique to U of A: a 2021 survey by Meal Exchange revealed that 74.5 percent of these students nationally experienced food insecurity. Contributing factors include high tuition fees, escalating living costs, and limited funding opportunities.

International students at U of A face considerable financial challenges, with tuition fees up to five times higher than those for domestic students. The decline in provincial funding has resulted in tuition hikes, further exacerbating their financial burden. Moreover, the cost of living in Edmonton, including groceries, housing, and transportation, has surged significantly, increasing the financial pressures on these students.

There is a prevailing misconception that international students should be financially self-sufficient. However, the financial support estimates provided to them often fall short of the actual living costs in Alberta. International students are typically required to demonstrate a minimum of $10,000 per year for living expenses, a figure considerably lower than the actual cost of living.

National trends

The situation at U of A mirrors a national crisis. The 2021 National Student Food Insecurity Report indicated that a staggering 56.8 percent of students across Canada experienced food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated this issue, disrupting students’ financial stability and eating habits.

The report highlighted that food insecurity disproportionately affects students from various marginalized groups. Students aged 30-34, along with those identifying as Two-Spirit, Gender-Fluid, Transgender, Queer, Indigenous, Latinx, and Black, face higher rates of food insecurity. International and exchange students, as well as those with dependents, especially single parents, are among the most vulnerable.

Controversies

In 2023, YouTube and TikTok featured videos showing international students using Canadian food banks which sparked a heated debate on social media. Critics argued that it represented a misuse of the system, while others pointed to the financial struggles of these students, hindered by limited job opportunities and high tuition fees.

Canadian food banks, including those in Ottawa, have faced challenges due to increased demand and reduced donations. Instances of misuse by some international students, not in critical need, have led to the implementation of measures such as online appointment systems to manage resources more efficiently.

Systemic change

Addressing this issue requires systemic changes. Experts and community leaders advocate for improved financial security for students, access to affordable and diverse healthy food options, and policy changes. These include increased tuition support and wage adjustments, along with the provision of culturally appropriate food options that meet various dietary needs.

The 2021 report emphasizes the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to tackle student food insecurity. This involves focusing on inclusivity and accessibility, ensuring that all students, especially those most affected, have access to necessary resources.

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