I remember college fondly. Leaving home, living in a new place, and fun with friends. I think I even remember some learning and planning for the future somewhere in there. What most of us don’t think of when we think of university or college is not having enough food to eat. I mean I didn’t exactly eat the best food. There was a lot of mac and cheese, microwave dinners and some other weird combinations of food I cringe to think of now. But never was there not enough. I never had to stress about where my next meal would come from.
Unfortunately today, more and more students across our country are finding themselves in university thinking more about how they will afford to eat than about their studies. Right here in our city all our universities have had to open food banks right on campus. More than 800 York University students need to access the Food 4 Thought campus food bank weekly in order to feed themselves.
I had the chance to talk with Niraj Maharaj, Student Rights and Support Services Coordinator for the
York Federation of Students about this the other day. You see back in 2010, Niraj and his friend Kemba, working at York, realized many of the students they were working with were also food insecure and they knew they had to do something about it.
Growing up, Niraj shared with me that he felt he was lucky. Even though he came from a single parent household, they always had enough food on the table and did not go hungry. His mother felt it was very important that he and his siblings were grateful for everything they had. Many weekends and holidays were devoted to volunteering in the local soup kitchens and participating in food drives. This is a lesson that Niraj has taken with him throughout his life.
Niraj’s job in Advocacy Services was to advocate for students who facing disciplinary action for misconduct, connect students with tutoring when they were struggling in classes or support them for other issues that would arise at school. Niraj was there to lend a helping hand. He eventually began to notice a trend among the students that he was working with. Many of confided that even with OSAP, scholarships and jobs, they were not able to afford enough food to get by. The combination of hunger and their incredibly busy schedules was leading many students to make poor academic choices.
Niraj and Kemba began running food drives to support their fellow students. Their efforts quickly snowballed. They were surprised to see how many people at York rallied together to ensure their fellow classmates could get access to enough food. The Food 4 Thought York University Food Bank was born.
Today the program sees 40-50 students in need of food every day.
When the food bank was just beginning, Niraj told me that many students were embarrassed to use the program. “They were worried that their peers or teachers would find out. But as the years have gone by the students at York University have been having open discussions regarding food insecurity. This has helped with the stigmatization many people feel about using a food bank. Students are realizing that they are not alone when it comes to hunger. If someone is still uncomfortable, I will refer him or her to a food bank that is off campus.”
Niraj told me that the best part of the job is seeing how grateful people are for the help they have received. “Many students stop by in their cap and gown after graduation, some with their families, to express thanks for the service. I’ve been told by many people that they wouldn’t be able to graduate if it weren’t for the food bank”.
However, graduation does not necessarily mean an end to food bank use. Unfortunately, many students will need to continue using food banks for years to come. “It used to be that once you had an education you could go out and get a job and support yourself and your family. But these days an education doesn’t guarantee you a job anymore,” says Niraj.
As students are graduating, they find it difficult to secure well-paying jobs to cover rent, other expenses and the new debt incurred from attending university. Continuing to use a food bank until one can hopefully find a job that pays enough is not uncommon for many students, especially those without strong family support. Even those with families in the city, often come from homes where parents are just making ends meet.
“The issues around food security, income, and tuition are vast and not going away any time soon but in the mean time we will be here to support our student community so that people who need food can access it.”
Without your help, community food banks just like Food 4 Thought would have to close their doors. Hundreds of students would go hungry and be forced to drop out of school.
Niraj saw the need to help others in his community and you can too. Not all of us can start a food bank, but there are many ways to contribute to make an impact.
Thank you for providing the joy of food and a bright future for these students!