Unmasking food insecurity at Capilano University

EA Douglas // Contributor
Natasha Lee // Illustrator

The empty hallway echoes with every step Avery Nowicki takes. It’s the middle of the semester, but the day’s classes are done, and the usually lively Library building feels barren. The thick rubber soles of their Doc Martens lay down a heavy thunk as they turn into the darkly lit room, crossing over the floor’s green decal which reads, “Welcome to the Members Centre.” 

Another student, tucked into the benches across the room, quickly looks up, spooked by the sound. Seeing Nowicki, who today is dressed in a brown corduroy pinafore with a thick smudge of black eyeliner, the student goes back to their computer. The Capilano Students’ Union’s Information desk is shuttered with the plastic folding divider protecting two computers and a trove of COVID tests, but the kitchenette is fully accessible. 

As they pass the wall of cupboards, Nowicki stops at the end. Two wooden doors sport lime green stickers reading: “CSU Community Cupboard.” Dramatically, Nowicki stretches their thin arms out, a layer of bracelets tinkling as they pull open both of the doors at once, revealing the contents inside. It has been freshly restocked — food items line both the bottom and top shelves.

In their head, Nowicki takes inventory: four packs of no name Mac ‘n Cheese, three cans of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli, tens cans of assorted Campbell’s soup and two large bags of no name quick oats. After a moment, Nowicki reaches for a large bags of oats, tucking it under their arm the way a child would a stuffed animal. Closing the Community Cupboard’s doors, they pause to read a paper notice that has crinkled with age: “Sharing is Caring. Please save some for those facing food insecurity.”

Food insecurity, or the inability to consistently secure enough food to live a healthy and active life, is an issue that is often overlooked, especially on campuses where the trope of being a “starving student” is as old as time. This continues even while studies have shown that going hungry not only increases the risk of mental health issues but also impairs one’s ability to learn. 

In 2021, the Canadian Campus Well-Being Survey reported that 28 per cent of Capilano University students experienced food insecurity. Since then, the price of food in Canada has risen by 9.7 per cent. Combine this with the high cost of living in Vancouver and living on your own for the first time and it’s clear to see that CapU students’ worries about food are more than bellyaching. 

“I work part-time and make minimum wage,” Nowicki explains, “so my paycheque is usually between $450 and $500 bi-weekly. All of that goes to rent.” They twiddle with their bracelets while they talk. “I use my tips for my groceries and going out. I try to budget $100 a month for groceries — like $20 to $25 dollars a week — and supplement with the stuff I can get from school.”

Along with the CSU’s Community Cupboard, there are other options available for CapU students facing food insecurity, including the Food Security Table at Student Affairs.

“The Food Security Table was created by the Student Affairs team when the campus transitioned back to in-person learning, as a way to provide a sense of community and low-barrier support for students accessing services through our office,” says Shiayli Toni, the Sexual Violence Prevention & Well Being Facilitator at Student Affairs. “During times of crisis or distress, peoples’ capacity to navigate day-to-day survival needs can be greatly impacted, so providing accessible food is an act of community care that aligns with our commitment to providing trauma-informed and accessible support.”

The recency of the Food Security Table’s creation reflects British Columbian’s increased use of food banks throughout 2022, which is up more than 30 per cent in the past year. “While we don’t track the number of people the Food Security Table supports, we have had to replenish its contents on an increasingly frequent basis,” said Toni.

Still, despite knowing they’re in need and that there is food available, students may struggle with using the resources provided. “I think sometimes I feel guilty for needing to take food from the Community Cupboard,” says Nowicki, “I know it was created for students who need access to food, as an able-bodied person, I should be able to work and provide for myself. Not that I feel unentitled, but like, what if someone else needs that food more than me?”

It’s a fair question, but Student Affairs is working hard to make sure it becomes one that doesn’t get asked often. The Food Security Table was inspired by the effectiveness of the CSU Community Cupboard and created with the intention of providing another option for students accessing support. As Toni explained, “The food we provide comes from a newly created food security budget that Student Affairs advocated for after reviewing the data from the 2021 CCWS. We’re also working with the Capilano Students’ Union in the pursuit of an ongoing partnership with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank in hopes to be registered as a Community Agency Partner.” The partnership would ensure a greater level of support for students experiencing food insecurity in 2023 and beyond.

On top of the Community Cupboard and the Food Security Table, there are several other options for students facing food insecurity. The CSU offers referrals to Quest Food Exchange, a low-cost grocery store that uses partnerships with food producers and distributors to increase food accessibility. Quest operates one of its not-for-profit storefronts on the North Shore, in the Lower Lonsdale area, but a referral is required to access its services, so students are encouraged to email the CSU directly to get the process started.

Back at their apartment, Nowicki makes the quick oats in a small pot on a white enamel stove, mixing in two large lumps of Great Value peanut butter and a handful of frozen berries. When it’s ready, they scoop a third of the purple- and blue-streaked beige mush into a bowl and drizzle a quick stream of almond milk on top. It barely encircles the mass in the bowl.

There is someone living in the dining room to help pay the rent, so Nowicki makes their way to their bedroom, using an old textbook as a tray table as they pull YouTube up to watch while they eat. Once settled, they look down at the bowl and say, “I love oats. They’re so yummy. I could eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” 

Here’s hoping they won’t have to.

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