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Campus food banks help students break the cycle of poverty

Author: Alex Graham

Posted on Feb 20, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton , UNB Saint John

New easy to access food bank services for non-perishable goods have opened on the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Fredericton and Saint John campuses to help students struggling to make ends meet.

“Cost of living, tuition, students facing inflation, textbook costs, housing costs. It’s a whole affordability thing right now, and it’s us trying to navigate that,” said UNB Student Union (UNBSU) president Amanda Smith.

The Fredericton campus food bank is in the Student Union building, just above the SU offices. It’s a compact and efficient space, jam packed with all kinds of nutritious non-perishables for those in need.

Smith said it’s taken a while to get the project going because the student union wanted to make sure the proper policies were in place before starting, with procedures covering food safety and food bank customer confidentiality.

“We wanted to make sure we had a system for sign up so that students can register. What we do is give them an identifier number so that the volunteers don’t know who they are by name because we want to respect students’ privacy.”

The food bank project has been in the works since last summer, as the student union saw interest for their previous program – food boxes from local food security initiative Greener Villages – outstrip their capacity.

With ever increasing demand for the food box service, and limited hours when the boxes could be picked up, the student union and Greener Village agreed that a different approach was needed.

Pick up time limitations meant that hampers containing perishable items needed to be returned to Greener Village for refrigeration. That led to a reimagining of how the food security initiatives could work and the food bank program was born.

Smith turned to student services and on campus food provider, Chartwells, for help getting the initiative off the ground. Both stepped up to help provided needed shelving and a first round of product to fill those shelves.

According to Alex Boyd, CEO of Greener Village, which will use its bulk purchasing power as a region wide food provider to buy food for the bank moving forward, the student food bank is one of the most important initiatives the organization is undertaking.

“Poverty is a trap,” he said. “It sucks people in, holds on to them and doesn’t let them escape.”

“We know that one of the most effective ways to break that trap is through education. It’s one of the cycle breakers and it’s massively important.”

When people have immediate, high priority needs like access to food or shelter, it’s impossible for them to address longer term needs like skill development and education.

“How much energy can you invest in education when you think, ‘I’ve got nothing to eat’? “, Boyd asked.

“If you can help people to complete their education to gain the employment that they need, they become more in control of their food and financial resources.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty in early adulthood is why Greener Village’s partnership with the UNB student union is so important.

“It’s a way for us to improve food security among students,” Boyd said. “And to have someone else dedicated on the ground, helping us to accomplish that is pretty special.”

The UNBSU Food Bank has also developed a great relationship with a local microbrewery. Trailway Brewing has created two beverages with proceeds going towards the food bank. Green Apple Spicy Water is carbonated water with tart apple flavouring and Lime Aid is a salted lime lager beer.

“Obviously the cost of food has skyrocketed and we’re all feeling it,” said Trailway manager Lindsi George. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a student right now trying to afford a meal for yourself.”

In addition to the ten per cent of purchase price going to the food bank, each product has a clever tie in to the food bank project.

The Trailway team worked with UNBSU to come up with catchy, relevant names for the products. Smith is particularly fond of the name the came up with for the lime flavoured lager.

“It’s called Lime Aid” she said. “Not like lemonade, but to ‘aid’ or help. You’re aiding people by buying this beer.”

“The green apple came from the Greener Village food bank logo,” George said of the non-alcoholic, spicy water. “We were all excited about what that one would taste like ... and it turned out really awesome.”

Both products will be available while supplies last, but George said demand for both has been strong.

“We’re getting quite low on the Lime Aid,” she said. “People have been loving it here in the taproom and it’s been going quite quickly…We might see a return to that in the fall.”

“For the spicy water, same thing. It’s really tasty.”

Saint John campus opens a food pantry

The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) on the Saint John campus also started a food bank.

The Campus Food Pantry opened Nov. 20 in the SRC office room. Using QR code technology, the bank gives clients a time slot to pick up their items, with a maximum of one visit per week. This is in addition to the Tuesday morning breakfast program the SRC runs at Hazen Hall, which also started in late November. Both programs are stocked with fresh, healthy food, and are supported by a mix of government grants, SRC funding and alumni donations.

“Forty per cent of post-secondary students in Canada are food insecure, with direct effects on both physical and mental health,” said SRC president Madison Worth. “With rising costs of living across this country, food insecurity is at epidemic proportions never before seen.”

Worth said when students neglect their nutrition because of cost, “it’s not an ideal environment for learning, it’s not an ideal environment for mental health.”

There are a mix of students accessing the food pantry and breakfast programs including international students, mature students and the biggest demographic – domestic students.

“It’s kind of been taken to a whole other level now,” Worth said of rising expenses for students, noting that homeless shelters and food banks off campus are now seeing students using their services.

The SRC is taking a wholistic approach to address not just food costs, but other necessities in the years ahead.

“We’re targeting the housing problem and setting up a new bursary for that, as well as some other transportation initiatives,” she said.

There are opportunities to support the food banks and other initiatives helping struggling students in the coming weeks.

This initiative will be supported through UNB's inaugural Giving Day on Feb. 29. The UNBSU and UNB-SRC will be encouraging alumni and others to make donations to the food bank through the online portal.

Banner photo: Greener Village's Alex Boyd joins UNBSU VP Events and Services, Kierra MacAlpine, UNBSU president Amanda Smith and UNBSU Food Coordinator, Lucy Armstrong in the Fredericton campus food bank.