CESI and Meal Exchange: Working Together to Address Student Food Insecurity

Posted on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020

Written by Sam Laban, Kendra Schnarr & Calla McLachlan

Meal Exchange (MX) is a national organization working with university students to ensure “Good Food For All” on Canadian campuses. CESI’s multi-year collaboration on food insecurity began with MX and one research project, and has since evolved to include new partners, new research, co-convening events, and advocacy efforts. Through exploring the many facets of this partnership, this blog post highlights many of the ways that an organization like CESI can work with community partners to do research and then mobilize what they learn to pursue long-term impact.

Student Food Insecurity – Hiding in Plain Sight

Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. It is intricately tied up with income and poverty, was on the rise in Canada even before COVID-19, and marginalized communities experience higher rates than the general population. Studies suggest this is also true of student food insecurity, but in many ways student food insecurity is an issue hiding in plain sight. There are no national data on students and food insecurity, and the myth of the “starving student” temporarily surviving on ramen masks the negative impacts it can have on health, well-being and academic success.

Research – Shedding Light on Student Food Insecurity

Despite the lack of national data, a growing number of studies are revealing more about student food insecurity. MX’s 2016 Hungry for Knowledge survey was one of the first to measure rates of food insecurity across of multiple campuses - they found nearly 40% of respondents were food insecure. Similar studies have followed at universities across Canada, including in Guelph.

In 2019, MX and CESI teamed up with Dr. Laura Forbes and graduate researchers in the Applied Nutrition program to explore food insecurity at UofG. Results from a survey of nearly 1000 students found that 1 in 5 were food insecure. Other projects looked at the relationship between food literacy and food insecurity, and focus groups shed additional light on the causes and effects of students’ food insecurity. MX and CESI are now working on research that elevates stories of lived experience in our work. A 2019 workshop with the Re-Vision Centre for Art and Social Justice enabled students like Mechaela to make videos about their experiences. In March, CESI, MX and Dr. Phil Loring were awarded the $20,00 James Alexander Campbell Knowledge Mobilization Prize to continue this digital storytelling work.

Mobilizing Research to Engage Campuses

Mobilizing this research has been a key strategy in engaging campuses in responding to food insecurity. MX’s first Hungry for Knowledge survey garnered both media attention and led to the creation of working groups and committees on two of the participating campuses.

Likewise in Guelph, CESI and MX’s research has helped build new partnerships and support efforts to bring campus stakeholders together. CESI worked closely with Vice Provost Dr. Carrie Chassels and student group Universities Fighting World Hunger in the design and dissemination of the survey research.

As the pandemic hit, and supported by our research, Dr. Chassels created the University of Guelph COVID-19 Food Security Working Group which included CESI, MX, the Guelph Student FoodBank, staff from Student Housing, Hospitality, Communications, and executives from student government. Through the working group, the Guelph Student FoodBank and Hospitality Services delivered funds and food items to students and community members, and sent care packages to students still in housing. CESI also worked with the campus communications team to provide online resources about food provision locally.

Advocacy and Coalition Building

Despite growing efforts on individual campuses like Guelph, the post-secondary sector across Canada will need to come together to solve student food insecurity. On the basis of their shared work over the past two years, CESI and MX have supported, and continue to support, a range of convening and advocacy efforts associated with student food insecurity.

In October 2019, CESI worked with Carrie Chassels, MX, Phil Loring, Universities Fighting World Hunger, and the Arrell Food Institute to co-host a daylong roundtable with nine Ontario Universities to share insights and explore opportunities for collaborative action. Furthermore, in April, CESI and partners published an opinion editorial calling for long-term solutions to student food insecurity in addition to the short-term responses created due to COVID-19. And, in November, UBC, CESI, UOttawa, McMaster and MX are hosting a national panel about food insecurity amongst university students. Gwen Chapman, Acting Provost at UofG and a champion of CESI’s work, will speak on the panel. A series of events with the same partners are being planned for February 2021 to continue the conversation.

Launching New Programs

Moving forward, CESI and the Guelph Student FoodBank are taking a lead in transitioning the campus food security working group into a group that will meet periodically to act on projects and programs that provide food to food insecure students. This could include, for example, supporting existing food programs move to socially distanced delivery models, and developing an affordable food market.

CESI and MX’s collaborative work over the past two years has evolved to include a growing number of partners and wide range of projects. From research and knowledge mobilization to convening and advocacy, their relationship is helping to build a dynamic, cross-Canada effort to meet students’ immediate needs and build the basis for long-term solutions to address student food insecurity.

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