Campus food banks in Edmonton feeling the pinch of inflation as demand increases

·2 min read
Two volunteers from the University of Alberta stock the campus food bank, which has seen an influx of new clients since the school year started. (University of Alberta Campus Food Bank - image credit)
Two volunteers from the University of Alberta stock the campus food bank, which has seen an influx of new clients since the school year started. (University of Alberta Campus Food Bank - image credit)

Post-secondary students forced to choose between paying rent or buying groceries because of a combination of high inflation and increased tuition are increasingly turning to campus food banks for support, organizers say.

And those food banks are struggling to keep up with increased demand.

Canada's inflation rate cooled to seven per cent in August, Statistics Canada said Tuesday, but the cost of groceries has risen by 10.8 per cent in the past year.

That's the fastest increase in the typical grocery bill since 1981.

Erin O'Neil, executive director of the University of Alberta Campus Food Bank, said they have seen the same number of clients they would normally see during a month in just a week.

"We have just been overwhelmed with people coming to us," O'Neil told CBC's Edmonton AM on Tuesday.

"We've had 200 new clients come through just in the last couple of weeks, but last year, we were supporting just under 300 families."

The food bank serves about 1,100 clients a year.

LISTEN | U of A campus food bank executive director talks to CBC's Edmonton AM about the struggle to help students put food on the table:

O'Neil said many of the new clients are international grad students with families.

She added the food bank has seen particular need from international students who do not have the same level of financial aid and may not have family networks to fall back on.

The food bank has close to 100 volunteers.

O'Neil said while volunteers try their best to make the process of picking up food hampers smooth and welcoming, there is a stigma attached to relying on a food bank.

"No matter how cheerful we try to make it ... It's a reflection of the fact that their budget is not making it to the end of the month and that is an incredibly stressful experience," O'Neil said.

This stress is also increased when students have to take care of their children. The campus food bank is working on getting bulk access to items like baby formula, diapers and toiletries.

"We often facilitate the donation of things like coats for international students, who are also realising that things like outdoor clothing cost a lot of money," O'Neil said. International students have had difficulty budgeting, given how quickly inflation began hitting Canadians.

VSM PHOTO LTD./Students’ Association of MacEwan University
VSM PHOTO LTD./Students’ Association of MacEwan University

MacEwan University's pantry program has also seen more people stop by, according to Elaine Tran, vice president of the students' association.

While September is traditionally a busy time with more people needing hampers, Tran said the increase is alarming.

"Our usership actually has increased by approximately 71 per cent within the last month, which is a huge jump ...  this year, we've actually seen 176 per cent rate of increase in contrast to September of 2021."

That's left the pantry having to rely on more support from Food Banks Alberta to ensure students aren't being turned away.

"The last thing that students should be really fearful or worried about is putting food on the table," Tran said.