Last month, a group called Meal Exchange, an inter-university student anti-hunger group, in collaboration with the Ryerson School of Social Work, published an interesting paper called Hungry for Knowledge: Assessing the Prevalence of Student Food Insecurity on Five Canadian Campuses. People are mostly drawing the wrong conclusions from it, but it’s worth examining nonetheless.
Meal Exchange surveyed 4500 students at five campus across Canada using a battery of questions on food purchase & consumption identical to those used in Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey. These questions, and the percentage answering “yes” to each are shown below.
|I/we worried whether my/our food would run out before I got money to buy more||37.7%|
|The food that I/we bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to buy more||28.4%|
|I/we couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals||44.4%|
|I/we regularly relied on a few low-cost foods in order to avoid running out of money to buy food||58.0%|
|I skipped meals because there wasn’t enough money to buy food||27.4%|
|I/we did not eat for the whole day because there was not enough money to buy food||11.0%|
On the basis of these questions, the authors ascribe each respondent a food security score. If they answered positively to one or fewer of the six questions they are considered “food secure”, from 2-4 they are “moderately food insecure” and 5 or more means “food insecure”. This is similar to the method Statistics Canada uses for its calculations of food security. Based on these results, Meal Exchange determined that 61% of students were food insecure, 8.3% had severe food insecure and 30.7% had “moderate food insecurity”.
Now, the most important thing to note here is that the survey sample isn’t even vaguely scientific. Students were recruited “via social media advertising, institutional survey committees, student associations, university health promotion departments and paper fliers distributed across Canada” – or, in simpler terms, “anyone they could find”. Even the authors concede this may overstate the number of food insecure students. But leave that aside for a moment. Assume the numbers are right. What do they mean?
Well, in some ways they arguably understate the issue. Something like 40% of undergraduates live at home with their parents. It is unlikely that very many of them are experiencing food insecurity. The problem, such as it is, is concentrated in the 60% or so of students who live away from home. That implies that something close to 2/3 of students living away from home are, broadly-speaking, food-insecure.
If that sounds a bit off to you, it’s probably because in fact the definition of “moderate” food insecurity is pretty expansive. If you answer yes to the questions not eating balanced meals and relying on low-cost food (e.g. pasta, ramen), that makes you “food insecure” according to the study. And while that might make sense for the majority of Canadians, it’s trickier for students. For most of them simply leaving home means they have less access to nutritious food because mom and dad aren’t doing the shopping anymore. That doesn’t actually mean they are malnourished or “can barely afford to eat” (as this quite disastrous Vice headline implied. “Moderate food insecurity” as Statistics Canada defines it is basically just another way of measuring low-income status and doesn’t indicate hunger in a sense most people would recognize.
The fact that most students are low-income isn’t (or shouldn’t be) news. Check out the Canada Student Loans Program’s monthly living allowances: these differ by province, but range between $968 (New Brunswick) and $1,408 (British Columbia) per month. Now compare these amounts to the various Statscan measures of low-income status. There’s the Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO), which is $1,420 per month in cities between 100-500K population and $1,680 for larger cities; the Low-Income Measure (LIM), which is about $1,737 per month, and the Market-based Measure (MBM) which varies by city, but tends to run between about $1,600 and $1,800. Take any measure of student expenditure you want, there simply aren’t that many students living on their own who are spending more than that. They’re low-income. Period.
And Canadians for the most part are OK with that. Our income-support programs are not designed to take people out of low-income status. And with respect to students specifically (traditional-aged ones anyway), we don’t really believe they deserve to be particularly comfortable. Call it “paying your dues” or whatever, but our view of how students are supposed to live is pretty ingrained. They’re supposed to be studying so they should live simply; they’ll make money (good money, for the most part) soon enough. And for a significant proportion of students – not all by any means, but a healthy percentage – there is a certain “Common People” aspect to their poverty: “if you called your dad he could stop it all” – J. Cocker. Though they are living away from home, many have the option of improving their standard of living and food security simply by moving back in with their parents. For these students, government intervention beyond what is already available is for the most part simply not required.
Now, predictably, the usual suspects are pushing the idea that 39% of students are “food insecure” (that is, they are combining the “severe” and “moderately” categories and calling them all “insecure”). But that’s just the usual chicanery one expects from lobby groups: saying 40% are food insecure makes it sound like there’s some kind of major public health crisis rather than the same old story about students having low incomes. And that’s a shame because the real story isn’t the re-packaging of low-income as food insecure – it’s the 8% of respondents who have severe food insecurity.
Even if that number is on the high side (and my guess based on our previous research on this subject we’ve conducted at HESA is that it’s not wildly out of line), it’s still very worrying. There really are students – mostly older, many with families – who don’t eat for 24 hours at a time, who really do have to choose between spending on food and spending on medicine or shelter, and don’t have other family resources to fall back on. We don’t do a good job of identifying these students, and we clearly don’t do a very good job of supporting them. These are the ones we really need to help, and urgently so.
Bref, ignore the sensational headlines suggesting widespread hunger. Focus on the smaller but more important numbers which really do indicate that we have a problem.