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International Post-Secondary Student Food Insecurity Cannot be Overlooked

September 12, 2022

International student enrollment in Canadian post-secondary institutions has risen in the past several years. Looking back at 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, international students accounted for annual growths in postsecondary enrollments in Canada while contributing about $22 billion to the Canadian economy. However, a troubling trend could be seen simultaneously – a rise in food insecurity among international students

Food security exists when individuals have the economic, financial, and physical means to access sufficient, nutritious, and safe foods that allow for a meaningful and healthy life. Being food insecure can impact anyone at any time. It can mean running out of money for food, skipping meals, not having access to food that meets your dietary or cultural preferences, or worrying about having enough to eat. 

     The 2021 National Student Food Insecurity Report by Meal Exchange reported the rate of food insecurity to be among the highest among international students, with 74.5% of international students reporting being food insecure. International students are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to high tuition fees, the expensive cost of living, the lack of institutional support, discrimination in finding adequate housing, and difficulties navigating the Canadian banking system and transferring money from their home country. Our society has a stereotypical presumption that all international students are extremely wealthy and can afford all of their basic expenses with disposable income to spare . However, the reality is, international students experience significant financial, mental, emotional, and social barriers as they settle into Canada. 

On average, international students pay $25,589.00 per year for a general arts degree in Canada; nearly four times domestic students’ tuition. Moreover, visa restrictions on employment create significant food security difficulties for international post-secondary students. Visa regulations in Canada state that only full-time international students with a study permit are allowed to work. While they can work full-time during post-secondary school breaks, they are restricted to working 20 hours a week during regular academic sessions. At the same time, youth in Canada have seen higher rates of unemployment between 2019-2022 relative to older Canadians, with many service sector organizations laying off younger and newer employees. These financial barriers are a significant driver of food insecurity, leaving many international post-secondary students vulnerable. 

With high tuition, rent, and other expenses, along with the debt incurred from studying abroad and/or the economic obligation that some have in sending money back home to their families, an international student’s remaining budget can be very limited. More often than not, to remain within budget, the first thing foregone is purchasing and consuming food. This food insecurity can translate into poor academic performance, difficulties concentrating on schoolwork, and social withdrawal from peers and school

High tuition fees, expensive cost of living, and challenges with employment are just three factors contributing to food insecurity among international students. A 2021 study exploring food security among international post-secondary students in Canada found that accessing and eating culturally relevant foods is very important for students. However, as it currently stands, international students in Canada experience significant challenges in accessing and finding culturally relevant foods, both on and off campus. Campus food environments are not the most welcoming places for international post-secondary students. The high prices of on-campus foods and the lack of culturally and religiously appropriate foods have left many international students feeling isolated and ignored when it comes to feeling seen and heard by the post-secondary institutions they are paying thousands to. If students can find culturally relevant foods, they are often extremely unaffordable

Food security is not just about having access to food, it is access to nutritious, meaningful, and preferable foods that allow individuals  to live their lives fully and authentically. Finding affordable and nutritious food is already a challenge for international students, but the ability to find food that provides comfort and a sense of home is even more difficult. The process of settling in a foreign country is already stressful for international students with language barriers, culture shock, adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, and pressures/expectations from family back home, and with the added challenge of food insecurity, the physical and mental health of international students is seriously jeopardized.

Food insecurity among international post-secondary students has long been overlooked due to both the “starving student” stereotype, which normalizes the lack of access to healthy food during post-secondary studies, and the stereotype that all these students are well-off. This has created an extremely dangerous reality for international post-secondary students across the country, with many resorting to compromising their food intake, from going to sleep hungry, to eating poor quality foods with little nutrition and being unable to access important cultural or religiously important food. We all must understand that food insecurity is not a personal failure. Various factors drive it outside international post-secondary students’ control, namely restrictive and expensive campus food environments, high tuition costs, a lack of affordable student housing, and the rarity of finding work that offers a living wage.

A lack of awareness of support programs and food resources continues to be a significant barrier to food security for international students. Strategies to support international post-secondary students should be needs- and concerned-based. These can include increasing awareness of on and off-campus resources, including cultural food services, especially during first-year orientation programs, and working directly with students to help them transition into their new food environment. Other on-campus interventions to support international students can be to roll-in funding policies that minimize tuition costs, increase eligibility for Canadian scholarships, and provide more affordable student housing options. 

This is a call to action for– alongside the growing recognition of the impact of food insecurity on post-secondary students and the growing and diversifying international post-secondary student population in Canada– Canadian post-secondary administrators to  prioritize the inclusion of international students in their food security efforts. International post-secondary students should not be left with the uncertainty that they may be unable to meet their basic needs at the end of the day. They should not be forced to make an impossible decision between being able to eat and affording their education.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash.