University of Victoria students, faced with rising tuition costs and mounting debt, are increasingly seeking help from an emergency food bank run by the students society, officials say.
The food bank, which started 12 years ago, now serves up to 300 students a week, with many of those showing up early in the week to pick up perishables such as bread and milk.
"It's quite established as a service and we find it grows more and more every year," says Megan Quigley, the students society's director of student affairs. "We've been finding that usage continues to grow between seven and 10 per cent every year."
Quigley attributes the rising demand to increasing financial pressures on students.
"The reason that we began the food bank was just greater and greater tuition hikes," she said.
"More and more students are taking out student loans and finding themselves in debt."
The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation reported in 2009 that undergraduate student debt in B.C. had grown by 14 per cent in the previous nine years, the highest increase anywhere in Canada. In that year, 54 per cent of B.C. graduates reported an average debt of $26,738.
Food bank use is confidential and no student has to give their name. But the students society does collect limited information to get a sense of the groups using the service.
"We find, actually, the majority of our users are mature students, students who are in graduate programs and students that have families," Quigley said.
All students contribute 50 cents a semester to operate the food bank, which also accepts donations from the community. The campus's community garden provides fresh vegetables.
Food bank co-ordinator Carrie Davies, who began volunteering at the bank three years ago, said she once had time to study during her shift it was so quiet.
Now, there are sometimes lineups out the door, particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays during the school year, she said.
The food bank, which is located in the basement of the Student Union Building, is open all year. Its hours of operation depend on the availability of volunteers, but it generally opens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the school year. Students can also arrange access to the bank outside those hours.
Davies said many students have to choose between paying the rent or buying food. Others are waiting for loan money to arrive, or have used up all their cash paying tuition fees and have nothing left for groceries.
"Then there are some students that are supporting families, which is a big financial strain," she said. "A few users are coming in with their kids. I mean, going to school and balancing a job and trying to raise a family - that's a lot to do.
"I have students every day tell me that this is the difference between eating and not eating. It's making a huge difference in people's lives."
Quigley said increased financial help for post-secondary students would likely lessen demands on the food bank.
"I think if we had more support for interest-free loans and grants for students going into post-secondary, we wouldn't see so many people in here and in such substantial debt," she said.
© Copyright 2013