By Hayley Citron
Marie Smith pulls at her hair, the messy curls entangling in her long fingers. She scans the shelves in front of her, eyeing each item and calculating its worth in her head. A soft ticking sound escapes on her breath as she sighs, and picks up a loaf of bread. Agitated, Smith sidesteps between shelves lined with canned soup and beans, breads, cereals, snacks and condiments.
Although Ryerson’s Community Food Room is small, it’s packed full of food basics such as fresh fruits, milk, meat and cheese. Smith points to the oatmeal boxes, a faint smile on her lips, “I’m wiped in the morning, and something like this really helps me fuel up.”
Tucked discretely away on the second floor of the Student Campus Centre, the Community Food Room is like an exclusive, miniature and free grocery store for Ryerson students and a small group of community members in need. For some students such as Smith, going to school means not even having enough money to buy food.
“By the time we pay our rent, our books, our tuition and our TTC pass, there’s not much left for food,” says Mandy Ridley, the outreach coordinator at the Food Room. “I would love not to have a food room, but it’s not an option.”
As Smith continues to move around the room, a small line begins to form outside the door. Aside from the staff member, the room is only wide enough for one person to enter and wander around comfortably, so time is of the essence. Smith’s pace quickens as she pulls more items off the shelves — two boxes of KD and a box of Cheerios. She takes a carton of eggs from the fridge, stopping for a minute to examine the other products as she weighs her options. She grabs a handful of jam instead.
“I’ve got six. I’m almost done,” she says, mostly to herself. Discouraged, Smith sighs again. Coffee or muffin mix? Then, something else grabs her attention. “Oh my, you even have cookies. I’m gonna go with those.”
The early childhood education student walks around, careful not to take too much, because she knows she’s only allowed 10 items per visit, and one visit a week.
Fortunately, Smith’s money situation isn’t that desolate. Her trips to the food room mean that she saves, “like, $20 or $30 on groceries, so I can buy things like my vitamins and medicine.”
The food room helps her cut her costs nearly in half each week.
Ryerson’s food room has an average of 185 visits each month, and is open Monday to Friday, depending on the availability of student coordinators and volunteers. The Food Room is a part of the Daily Bread Network of food banks, from which it receives bi-weekly food shipments to help stock the shelves throughout the year. A big part of its budget consists of a large donation it received from a Muslim Students’ Association fundraiser.
“Since the beginning of the [school] year, we’ve had quite a lot of students sign up,” Ridley says. Through word of mouth and the RSU, students such as Smith are encouraged to visit; it’s open to everyone, and boasts a comfortable atmosphere. All a student needs is his or her student card to prove that he or she goes to Ryerson. Unlike other food banks, very little financial background is necessary.
“We trust that [the people coming] need the food…if they haven’t gotten a payday that week, or OSAP, and they need a little help,” Ridley says.
Their honesty policy allows them to provide food to anyone, regardless of the depth of their debt problems. It’s based on the understanding that any student going without food is suffering. Students who lack food and are forced to pick up a part-time job to make ends meet have less time to focus on their studies. “How can you be doing studies when you haven’t gotten any protein?” asks Ridley.
At 42, Smith is a single parent with a son in middle school. She feels almost as if she’s aging in reverse. “Most students who use this place are young, they’re in their twenties and yeah, they don’t have a lot of money to spare, but their education is like a full-time job.” Hopefully, she adds, not many other full-time students have to support someone other than themselves, and while part-time jobs aren’t totally sufficient, at least they give some extra padding.
Smith was fired from her job as a law clerk two years ago, and has not found work since. She’s back in school to finish her degree in early childhood education, after spending her first two years at George Brown College.
When she first lost her job, Smith began looking for other work, but when nothing else came up over the next few months, she began to worry about how she would take care of herself and her son. She struggled to pay the rent, and wrestled with the uncomfortable reality of having to ask for charity.
“I was devastated. The way I was raised was, you didn’t ask for food or charity, not from anyone. It wasn’t right,” she says. If it weren’t for her son, it probably would have taken her longer to ask for help.
Inevitably, Smith began looking for food banks in and around her neighbourhood. Her first food bank experience was extremely tough — even after leaving. “I couldn’t eat the food I got. I was so ashamed, I couldn’t eat any of it. I let myself down. I let my son down,” Smith says, her voice breaking.
Although there are programs like the Toronto Foundation for Student Success that focus on making sure that children get enough to eat at school, Michael Oliphant, director of research and communications at the Daily Food Bank doesn’t think that they’re doing enough.
“Those programs feed children but don’t realize that the parents are going hungry. They would rather provide for the children and eat as a family.” Oliphant estimates that there is a food bank in just about every university now. The biggest users are grad students because they are the most likely to have families to provide for.
When she came to Ryerson, Smith applied for OSAP, and found out about the Food Room from her community food bank group. She says this food bank is the best one she’s been to. “At other food banks you can only get chili, beans, soup and rice. That’s it,” she says, ticking the items off on her fingers. But here, she explains excitedly, “They have tofu! And I’m allergic to certain meats and other foods, but I can get good alternatives and other meats here, which is great.”
Smith was unsure at first of how to go about asking for help from other students. “I was thinking, OK, I gotta go ask someone in their twenties for food…that’s embarrassing.” Despite the respect and welcoming nature of the food room volunteers and staff, she found her first experience degrading.
“But, then I looked around and saw the same people here as at any other food bank. And the ones that are in school have it so much better, they don’t even know,” she says. “People that are on welfare or not doing anything at all aren’t going anywhere, and that can’t make their lives better. But I’m in school, and I’m going somewhere.”
Even though it’s expensive, it’s better to be in school, broke, than not, Smith says. “An education, whatever kind, will help pay the bills after, and there will be a lot!” she says. Getting it all together late, Smith says, is better than being stuck. “My number’s 50, because that’s the age I want to have everything figured out by.”
After using the food room for over a year now, Smith still struggles to pay the rent. She’s a bit behind now, but she’s alright for the most part. “When I’m finished [school], I’m still on the hook with OSAP” she says.
Smith admits to still being pretty disappointed with herself and her situation. The food room helps tremendously, but the questions still remain each week: “Do I buy the eggs today, the milk, or do I walk, take the subway, does my son get some money for a slice of pizza?”
Telling her son about their money situation was another story. “It was so difficult to talk about. But, he said to me the other day, ‘it doesn’t matter, at least we’re doing it. At least we’re making it work.’”
For Smith, her son’s understanding of the situation was the most important thing.
“Where I live, near Regent Park, there are children who get a bowl of soup to eat for the day, if that. There’s something not right,” she says. “I plan on teaching my students all about these things, about how to live your life in a healthy way and help other people, about how to stay on your feet.” Smith wants to teach children how to survive in the urban jungle, on a full stomach no less.