By Gabriela Silva Ponte and Hafsa Hanif
As Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) students struggle with food insecurity, some are turning to the Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union’s (TMSU) Good Food Centre (GFC), which has seen its supply orders double since the spring of this year.
The GFC is a drop-in food bank which has a community garden associated with it. It also provides students with resources, like events and recipes. According to its website, the food bank advocates for the food insecurity rights of post-secondary students.
Some items that are seeing higher demand include dry cereal, pasta, eggs, peanut butter, fresh milk, fresh fruit, lettuce, potatoes and carrots, the TMSU said in an emailed statement to The Eyeopener.
Good Food operations lead Lauren Barch said the centre serves many students who eat Halal food.
“We have a lot of members [with] Halal [diets] and [who] have dietary restrictions as well, so we find that a lot of our Halal proteins go very quickly,” she said.
The food bank is located in the Student Campus Centre (SCC) in Room B 03A.
According to Barch, the GFC is open from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, 1 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 2 to 5 p.m. on Thursdays. Food deliveries take place every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to the statement.
“Currently, the busiest day is on Tuesday,” she said.
TMU community members hoping to register for the food bank membership will be asked to fill out a short questionnaire about the size of their household and if there are any dependents they are supporting. This helps the food bank determine how many points to give students, as previously reported by The Eye.
“We have an intake process, so anybody who is a new member has to go and book an appointment with us. It’s about a 15 minute appointment,” Barch said. “Then, once they’ve done our intake process, they’re able to use our services for the entire year.”
Participants are given at least 10 points each week that they can exchange for groceries, as previously reported by The Eye.
Barch said that every undergraduate student pays a fee with their tuition that goes towards the GFC.
“Because of that, any student who comes to use our service doesn’t have to pay anything extra,” she said.
Helen Ngu, a health service management student, has been volunteering at the GFC for two years.
Ngu said using the GFC has offset about half of her food costs and given her a healthier lifestyle.
“I’ve found that it’s a great resource for me to supplement my need for certain produce items,” she said.
Ngu said the GFC has quadrupled in size in the last few years but there are also 10 times as many users as before.
“Because we have such a large audience, we had to increase the amount of food items that we have and the variety,” Ngu said.
The Chang School student told The Eye there are a lot of items available, whether students are looking for produce, dairy, grain or protein products.
“It’s just a matter of going and seeing what you need and what you can go without,” Ngu said.
Ahsan Taqveem, a TMU master of digital media student, said he has been using the food bank service for the last seven to eight months.
“[The GFC] has saved my grocery expenses. It has helped me save money since I’m not working right now. So I believe [it’s] a good opportunity for people like me,” he said.
“I write down all of my expenses so that I know how much I spend and I do not buy anything that I do not need,” Taqveem said. “I found out that in Canada, you can get almost everything for free…that’s how I’m surviving without a job.”
Casey Hearn, a first-year social work student who has been using the service since this September, said they go without certain foods because they are only able to afford the bare minimum.
“I come every week,” they said.
“They have meat, grains, lentils, plant food, cereal. There’s a lot,” Hearn said. “I have a restrictive diet, so a lot of the time, I can’t afford the food I actually eat.”
Food insecurity in Canada
Food insecurity among Canadians is not uncommon. According to a University of Toronto update, 6.9 million people in the 10 provinces lived in food-insecure households in 2022.
Jacqui Gingras, an associate professor of sociology at TMU, said that living in a food-insecure home can lead to a cascade of issues, including mental health struggles and hindered academic performance.
“When you’re a student and you’re hungry, you’re unable to focus, you’re unable to concentrate, you spend a lot of time thinking about where food is going to come from next. It increases your stress hormones,” she said. “That increased amount of cortisol in your body because of stress then leads to higher predisposition towards diabetes and heart disease. Those are chronic diseases that are exacerbated by stress.”
“It’s difficult to stay present for relationships. There could be social isolation,” Gingras added.
Barch recognizes that food insecurity is a systemic problem that is bigger than food banks.
“We’re not going to eliminate food insecurity and hunger altogether, but as an organization we’re at least able to help students have food [so that] they don’t have to always be wondering where their next meal is going to come from,” she said.
According to an emailed statement from the TMSU to The Eye, the GFC’s Hunger Report is currently on pause as the students’ union “[figures] out a systematic way to affirm user consent to collect that data.”
The GFC uses Link2Feed to register users, which is a requirement from their primary supplier–the Daily Bread. According to the emailed statement, the statistical information includes “member demographics information” and requires individual user consent.
“As a result, we are working on getting all our current Food Centre users updated by ensuring they have all provided signature consent on their Link2Feed profiles,” the statement reads.
“Currently users must come in for a one-on-one appointment interview with staff to ensure that they meet the requirements and also to ensure we have their consent to use their information in the Link2Feed. We are working on migrating that process to be completely online for privacy reasons by simply asking students to verify with their Link2Feed client ID before continuing to access the [GFC],” the statement adds.
In the emailed statement, the TMSU said that the food bank has been “struggling with long lines” and has heard complaints from students that there is line jumping.
The TMSU implemented a ticketed system–where members are handed numbers prior to the space’s opening–in the hopes of mitigating the line-jumping issue.
“Students fill the corridor outside of the centre sometimes two hours before the space opens, simply to get a [numbered ticket] and then return when their number is called or posted to the [GFC] social media. This ticketed system has helped with the line-jumping, but we still have a long line outside of the space each day before opening. We may migrate to an online link, where students can receive a number remotely instead of lining up hours prior to opening,” the statement reads.
The drop-in food bank service reopened in September 2022, after their pandemic closure, as previously reported by The Eye.