“How Can Canadian Universities Meet International Students’ Food Needs?” by Erika Stewin

ERIKA STEWIN, MA
Email; estewin@uoguelph.ca
Link to thesis; https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/handle/10214/6640

What do international students eat when they come to study at Canadian universities? How do they think about the foods available to them on- and off-campus? These students are often referred to as “cash cows” by newspapers, magazines and by international students themselves. What responsibilities, then, do universities have when it comes to food security among the international students they actively recruit?

In the summer of 2012, as a University of Guelph Public Issues Anthropology Master’s candidate, I began to explore these questions with students from the University of Windsor and the University of Guelph. I wanted to consider the relationship between international student food security and identity in order to learn more about the availability and accessibility barriers international students face when searching for personally and culturally appropriate foods. I was inspired to explore these issues thanks to a conversation with a young Korean woman, pursuing post-secondary education in Toronto, Canada, who had mentioned that she often found it challenging to locate culturally-appropriate foods while abroad.

Although international students pay three to five times the cost of domestic tuition rates, many felt that their needs were not being met. Participants noted that they were particularly unhappy with the quality and variety of food items offered on campus. Many students described experiencing food insecurity, which can be defined as a temporary or ongoing inability to access healthy and preferable foods that allow one to live a functional life. International students from both universities experienced food insecurity as a result of food unavailability and high cost. In addition, many students did not have access to relevant food-related information such as grocery store, on-campus food services and ethnic grocer locations. Students related feelings of depression, homesickness and identity loss, hunger, difficulties with weight loss or weight gain, and stories of being forced to compromise religious beliefs in order to eat, as some of the implications of a lack of access to familiar and culturally appropriate foods.

Stories of recruitment presentations were key in decisions to come to Canada for post-secondary education. Recruiters described a smorgasbord of familiar, preferred, and culturally appropriate foods that would be readily available on campus. Yet once they arrived, students were shocked and disappointed by the high prices associated with on-campus foods, the lack of culturally appropriate foods (especially halal items), portion sizes and the cost of the meal plans in relation to the quantity and quality of foods purchased. While some students were excited by the prospect of experimenting with new foods while in Canada, others who had refused to purchase meal plans described feeling grateful as they mentioned that there was “nothing for international students to eat on campus” because foods were too expensive, or were considered unfit for personal consumption. Students also spoke about the challenges of obtaining culturally appropriate foods off-campus. Foods that might be considered common place in a student’s home country, including items such as ox tail, curry goat, bitter-melon, yams, and certain spices and condiments, were frequently unavailable, old, or too expensive to purchase. When students did learn of good sources to buy food, they might have to travel far distances, leading to transportation cost challenges.

As the international student population at Canadian universities continues to expand and diversify, it is crucial that university administrations respond to this growth by prioritizing international student inclusion. By providing more ethno-cultural food options on-campus, universities stand to create a welcoming environment inclusive of all students. When students were asked what they thought could be done to improve international student food security, “create a polling system” was frequently provided as a response. A polling system would allow universities to find out more about their students by asking them what types of foods they would like to see more frequently on-campus, what they would be comfortable paying for, as well as what they have trouble finding or purchasing off-campus. Universities equipped with this information could use it to better serve the needs of their communities. In addition, creating an online forum to share questions and concerns related to food and also to life in Canada would allow international students to help each other locate desired foods by sharing food-related information, i.e. about ethnic grocer locations.

Some might argue that Canadian universities are under no obligation to consider students’ food needs and preferences. Yet, dissatisfaction with food offerings on-campus does have potential implications for universities. Participants felt that a lack of culturally appropriate foods on campus was just one example of administrations ignoring their needs. What was once considered by international students to be a great educational opportunity is increasingly becoming associated with sacrifice, poverty and food insecurity. Consequently, some students were considering returning home to finish or further their education, or relocating to another country, as they did not feel that their voices were being heard within their Canadian universities. As such, Canadian universities may be able to improve upon student retention and recruitment by striving to meet the food needs of international students.