breakfast cereal

Books or Breakfast? An Impossible Choice

Forget the old jokes about university students living off of ramen noodles. Food insecurity is a real problem on campus, with real consequences.


Joking use of the phrase “starving student” feels a lot more dark upon learning that 39% of Canadian university students lack food security.

To fuel higher education and its contributions to a successful economy and continued innovation, it’s important to literally feed ambitious minds. That means breaking down barriers to student access to healthy food options. Having to choose tuition and textbooks over meals does not set students up for success. The reality for many students is that it’s impossible to choose both.

The cost of tuition nearly doubled from 1993 to 2015, and the cost of living also continues to rise. Even with roommates and part-time jobs, many students are compromising on food choices or skipping meals entirely to make ends meet.

Until now, many of these accounts have been anecdotal, with little hard research to quantify the health and social costs of obtaining a post-secondary degree. Meal Exchange, a national registered charity, compiled survey data across five university campuses in a public report, Hungry for Knowledge.

Students were surveyed at Dalhousie University, Ryerson University, Brock University, Lakehead University, and the University of Calgary. The study found that half of students sacrificed healthy food choices to pay tuition, one in four students reported that food insecurity had an impact on their physical health, and one in five reported an effect on their mental health.

Even though there are food bank programs available on most campuses, these are often woefully understocked. Moreover, the social stigma attached to accessing food banks leaves many students more willing to skip meals. It can be especially difficult to admit to needing help when many students are navigating independence while living away from home for the first time.

All of this suggests that better programs need to be in place to address the issue of food security for university students.

Based on its findings, Meal exchange made four official policy recommendations in its report, including: establishing a national food and housing security survey across all universities and colleges in Canada; assessing the possibility of a guaranteed annual income for students; increasing affordable housing; and committing to calls to action from Truth and Reconciliation to reduce barriers to education for aboriginal students. This would increase students’ agency over food choices and address the root causes of food insecurity.

Mapping a plan for future where Canadian students are free to learn without making poor health decisions is critical in a knowledge-based economy. Leaving 39% of students without food security should not be an option.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.