Hunger for learning leaves stomachs growling at U of M

The Fort Garry pantry, available to students who in financial distress, has been recording an influx of activity in 2022-23.

More post-secondary students are making nutritional sacrifices and turning to the University of Manitoba’s food bank as they struggle to pay tuition, bills and the inflated cost of groceries and campus dining.

The Fort Garry pantry, available to part-time and full-time students who are experiencing financial distress in order to offset their food expenses, has been recording an influx of activity in 2022-23.

The number of monthly users surpassed 200 partway through the school year, up from an average of 75 students per month in pre-pandemic semesters — an increase of more than 167 per cent.

Concerns about the prevalence of food insecurity among graduate students, many of whom juggle coursework, research duties and caregiving responsibilities, prompted their union to conduct a survey on the subject in recent weeks.

The replies revealed an “alarming” state of members’ mental health, said Silvia Sekander, outgoing president of the graduate students’ association better known as UMGSA on campus.

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“It is evident that many students are struggling with food insecurity, some of which are in crisis situations that need immediate attention,” union leaders wrote in an email to students after reviewing results submitted by 659 people between March 9 and April 12.

The April 17 memo urged individuals in serious or life-threatening distress due to poverty or finances to contact the UMGSA office. Soon after, Sekander heard from 30 students.

More than half of all respondents disclosed they are worried that they or their entire family is not eating as well as they should be due to high food prices.

About 83 per cent of students said they have chosen unhealthier and less-nutritious options on campus because of high menu prices at U of M restaurants and cafeterias. An identical percentage of participants indicated they have skipped a meal for that reason.

“Our graduate students are the future of our Manitoba, so we should take care of them so that in the future, they can take care of Manitoba,” Sekander said, noting malnutrition impacts focus, academic outcomes and overall well-being.

Grocery prices rose 9.7 per cent between March 2022 and March 2023, Statistics Canada data shows. By the end of this year, the national annual food price report predicts bills will have increased between five to seven per cent, overall.

The majority of those surveyed by UMGSA suggested dining options are particularly overpriced at the university. Four in 10 students claim there is a price-gouging problem and perceive food and drink options to be more expensive inside campus borders than outside them.

PhD student Philip Pitura’s go-to campus meal is “whatever is cheapest,” and he said that’s typically a grab-and-go snack or sandwich purchased between study sessions.

Pitura was among hundreds of graduate students and supporters who rallied at U of M Monday as part of a nationwide walkout in protest of low research wages.

The federal government has not raised the majority of its most prestigious scholarships — awards that are intended to cover tuition and cost-of-living expenses so recipients can focus on research, and which set the bar for other graduate student prizes — in 20 years. Inflation has risen about 50 per cent during that period.

“There’s only so much time, and every moment that we spend outside of working on our studies is time that the university isn’t producing new papers, new discoveries, as well as time that we don’t get to use on progressing our own education,” Pitura said.

It’s common for graduate students to work multiple jobs, such as tutoring and teaching, to make ends meet. In order to cover his family’s rising expenses, Pitura’s spouse got a second job, their household downsized to one car and they took out loans.

Sekander recently met with university leaders to flag concerns about student finances, nutrition and the affordability of campus dining options.

A spokesperson for U of M’s ancillary services indicated officials know food inflation has put financial stress on community members and took projections for 2023 into account when recommending menu prices for the coming school year.

The university’s 2023-24 budget sets aside $2 million to be targeted to areas deemed critical to support graduate students.

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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