“What’s for dinner tonight? Crabby Joe’s,” says Daniel Ngo, a third-year computer science student at UTM.

Vince Leung, a fourth-year CCIT student, agreed. “Some type of fettuccini or spaghetti,” he added. “My second choice: to go chill at Square One. Maybe taco combo three: fries, Nestea, and two hard tacos.”

“I think pizza,” answered Indigo Wang, a psychology major.

As students drool over their dining options, 17% of people in Mississauga will face only two choices on the menu tonight: take it or leave it.

Last year, in an average month, about 800,000 people across the country accessed emergency food services, according to the Canadian Assocation of Food Banks. Canada’s hungry rely on monthly donations of canned beans, soup, macaroni and cheese, packets of pasta and rice, juice boxes, and jars of peanut butter to survive. Fifty percent of food bank users are household families, 39% are single people, 12% are couples without children, and 38% are children and youth.

If the same ratio of people on campus didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, it would be the equivalent of 2,000 to 2,500 students going hungry tonight.

Peel’s hunger factors

CAFB states that the root cause of hunger issues is not a shortage of food, but rather poor health, job losses, and the rising costs of housing.

Since the 2007 recession, Peel food banks have seen an 18% increase in the amount of people walking through their doors. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians still suffer from the effects of the economic downturn.

Long-term illnesses, high medical expenses and scarce employment opportunities can contribute to difficulty finding or maintaining a job. At the same time, the majority of food bank clients, who live in urban areas, struggle to pay for their homes. Reports state that homeowners spend up to 75% of their paycheques paying off mortgages or rent, leaving only a few dollars left each month for food, bills, and other expenses.

Patricia Lagarde, a recent UTM grad who works as a volunteer at the crisis intervention centre in Oakville, explains her work of providing short-term support to residents in distress.

Every day, people call in about job losses, mental health problems, relationship issues, and a lack of money. Lagarde offers a sympathetic ear and a referral to shelters, counselling services, or taxi companies. At times, she sends them to the nearest food banks.

“The options are very limited and they would have to accept whatever menu is offered to them,” Lagarde says. “Sometimes people have to choose between cooking their own meals or paying the rent.”

A common sentiment that Lagarde’s callers share is that Toronto has a high cost of living. As a result, it is harder to afford food and living expenses in the Greater Toronto Area compared to cities in southwestern Ontario, such as Windsor.

“It is difficult,” Lagarde comments. “People are not aware of how serious they [the hunger issues] are. But now and then, they get excited over little things like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have the shepherd’s pie today!’ and when you talk to them, you share their joy.”

The impact on students

To take Lagarde’s advice literally, being aware means acknowledging that people within one’s own community—in this case UTM—go hungry.

In a brief questionnaire aimed at raising hunger awareness on campus, UTM Students in Free Enterprise, an organization committed to developing sustainable living through business endeavours, posed a question to a small sample of 200 students, asking, “What percentage of people in Mississauga do you think depends on the food bank?” The survey results revealed that 32% of the students correctly guess that 10-20% of people rely on food banks. But are they aware that this number might include their peers on campus?

“Not many people know about it, but we do have a food bank set up here at UTM for students,” said Harjeet Litt, president of the UTMSU Food Bank.

The food bank, a service available to all students attending UTM, is run by a team of volunteers and supervised under UTMSU. Staff at the InfoBooth issue students a key to access the Food Bank in room 242 of the Student Centre on weekdays from 8 a.m. to midnight. Or, students can place food orders online using a special code and pick up the food items later in a reserved locker in the North Building at their own convenience. The whole process is anonymous.

Nida Ayub Khan, an InfoBooth staff member and a senior at UTM pursuing a double major in sociology and crime, law, and deviance, has given keys to the food bank to “eight or nine” people this semester. She recognizes two of them.

“I personally know them. They come to the food bank sometimes, when they run out of things to cook with on rez,” Khan says. “And that’s fine and all, but this is supposed to be for people who have nothing, you know? Absolutely nothing.”

At the moment, UTMSU does not keep a tracking system of who uses the food bank or benefits from it. Due to privacy and confidentiality agreements, users are anonymous.

“Anyone who wants to use the food bank can swipe a key and grab some food or use the locker system assigned to them and pick up food whenever they want,” said Mohammed Hashim, the executive director of UTMSU. “But no, we cannot refer you to any of our food bank users.”

Efforts on campus

As the spring semester gears up, club executives prepare for a new semester of activities in the spring. A small number of them, including Priya Prasher, the president of the UTM Meal Exchange, focus their energy on hunger awareness.

Prasher is a a fourth-year biology major who led the annual Trick-or-Eat event this October, a Halloween activity that encourages people to dress up and ask for canned food donations in exchange for candy. The event collected about 450 kg of food and $1,700 for the Meal Exchange.

In March, Prasher plans to bring back a popular fundraising idea from last spring, “Buck a Bang”. Students donate money to the UTM Meal Exchange and have a go at bashing in a used car on display in front of Student Centre, courtesy of Lyons Auto Body.

“But this time, maybe before they sign off the waiver form, we could ask people to complete a survey about hunger awareness,” Prasher suggests.

On top of that, Prasher aims to ask students living on residence to donate the excess balance on their meal cards to UTM Meal Exchange when the semester ends.

“Hunger awareness is important,” Prasher stresses. “It’s important because it’s happening in your world and this is your future, too. Don’t wait until you’re 40 years old to make a change. Start now, here, on our own campus.”

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