Visiting Laurentian University's student food bank wasn't an easy thing for “Bonnie” to bring herself to do.
The 44-year-old, who asked to speak under a pseudonym to protect her privacy, is in her first year of studies after recently leaving an abusive marriage. She's having a hard time making ends meet on OSAP loans.
But even though her budget is tight, as it is for many students, it's still hard for her to admit to herself she needs help, and to do it with a smile on her face.
By virtue of being a university student, she already feels like she's part of of a privileged minority.
“I ate the can of beans (from the food bank) last night,” she said.
“If it ended or culminated with eating the can of beans, it's part of a much bigger process ... There's so many things that are going through your mind attached to that experience.
“Eating it, feeling worthy, or entitled, or justifying it, or not — all of that in your mind — it's a really tricky experience to navigate, I would say.”
While Bonnie said she's glad the help is available to students, the fact that it's needed is troubling.
“It's as huge as the entire global food supply, right down to provincial laws and tuition costs,” she said.
“So many issues are spinning and playing around it, that just the fact that we need a campus food bank speaks to other painful, obvious problems.”
Laurentian's food bank is run by the Students' General Association (SGA), and a similar program is run by the Students' Administrative Council (SAC) at Cambrian College.
Collège Boréal doesn't currently have a food bank program, but its foundation provides grocery cards to students who can't afford to purchase food.
Students are allowed to use the campus food banks at Laurentian and Cambrian three times per semester. They're given enough food to last roughly a week.
About 200 students have registered with the Cambrian's food bank so far this semester, numbering close to 400 visits. About five or six students use Laurentian's every week.
December and April are the student food banks' busiest times, those who run the school services said, because OSAP loans start to run out.
Charles Wilson, executive director of the SGA, said Bonnie's story is a common one.
“Students would actually really have to almost hit rock bottom and then some before they would use the food bank,” he said.
“We're definitely trying to take some of the stigma away ... but that's not an easy task.”
To reduce the stigma associated with visiting the food bank, they're now able to request access by visiting the “V-Desk,” a service counter in the university's student centre introduced this school year.
“Going into someone's office is always a barrier to service,” Wilson said. “The V-Desk is open, and people feel psychologically more comfortable going there.”
As of Dec. 1, food bags appropriate for people with various dietary needs or family sizes are available at the V-Desk. The food bags will also be available in various locations around campus starting in January.
“Laurentian is rather large,” said Chloe Mirfield, director of membership services at the SGA.
“Some students go through their entire student career without coming into this area of campus, even though it's the student centre. We have to branch out, and we have to look at new ways to do things.”
Mirfield said she's noticed food bank usage go up since the introduction of the V-Desk, which is good because there's always leftover food at the end of the school year.
While Cambrian students must visit the SAC office to access the campus food bank, there is a private entrance to the facility so they're more comfortable, said SAC president Curtis Bell.
Campus food banks are needed for a number of reasons, including rising living costs and tuition rates, the student leaders said.
Some students also struggle with financial literacy, said Bell, and when their OSAP loans come in, they don't have the skills to budget appropriately.
Help from friends
The Sudbury Food Bank partially funds both Cambrian's and LU's food banks. Cambrian's has received roughly $600 in the past year from the Sudbury Food Bank, and generates another $4,000 through fundraisers and donations.
Laurentian's receives about $1,000, while the SGA chips in some $1,500 from its own operating funds. The balance of the funding comes through private donations.
Dan Xilon, executive director of the Sudbury Food Bank, said he thinks campus food banks are an “excellent service.”
The Sudbury Food Bank also funds elementary and secondary school breakfast programs, and the campus food banks are important for the same reason.
“You can't learn while you're hungry,” Xilon said.