Nourishing The Dream: International Students and Food Insecurity in Canada

Food insecurity among international students is widespread but poorly understood. Deeply intertwined with the high international tuition, the housing crisis and the general high cost of living, worsened by a growing anti-international student sentiment, food insecurity among international students is a serious issue.  Kapish Chhabra is international student from India pursuing a General Associate of Science Degree at Columbia College in Vancouver and currently working with the Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks on a paid Columbia College work placement supporting our food justice policy and communications work. In our latest blog post, Kapish takes a closer look at the issue of food insecurity among international students. 

Studying abroad may seem like a dream come true, but as an international student in Vancouver, I am well aware of the many challenges that my peers face, one being food insecurity, but also other challenges like the cost of living in Canada and related emotional and financial stress.

My name is Kapish. I am an international student from India pursuing an associate degree of general sciences at Columbia College here in Vancouver. I came to Canada in September 2022 and my journey here has been filled with exciting opportunities and various challenges.  When I first arrived, I was completely clueless about local food and resources. I didn’t know where to shop, what to buy, or even how to cook and I ended up skipping meals more often than I’d like to admit. I was essentially living on instant noodles, which were neither healthy nor sustainable. After almost 25 days in Canada, I got my first part-time job in Canada as a call center employee. Managing studies, work and other home chores was stressful. Living on my own was challenging and there were some instances where I almost burnt my house down while cooking, but with time, I learnt everything. Realizing that I couldn’t survive on noodles forever and that my cooking skills needed a serious change, I turned to my lifeline – video calls with my mom where she’d patiently guide me through the basics of cooking. My mom became my cooking mentor, from thousands of miles away.

Over time, I discovered local grocery stores and started experimenting with the local cuisine. I started interacting with various people on campus such as the college nurses. I became aware of the help that my college provided to students in terms of accessibility to food such as grocery items once every two days, snack kits and gift cards to purchase groceries. It wasn’t just about the food; it was also about adapting to a new culture, learning to navigate a different education system, finding decent work and affordable housing and building a support network. To all my fellow international students out there, remember that you are not alone, we are all in the same boat. Embrace the journey, because in the end, it’s these experiences that shape who we are meant to be.

Food insecurity among international students is less understood; it is deeply intertwined with the high cost for international students to study in Canada, the housing crisis and general high cost of living that is unexpected here. Worst still, a growing anti-international student sentiment is expressed among some public and seen in some media furthering anti international student racism.

International students are an easy target for people to blame. Rather than understanding the problems that international students face, they are often held accountable for problems like housing shortage in Canada. Amid a severe housing crisis, the Immigration Minister Marc Miller in a 2023  interview hinted at capping the number of international students as a way to help address the housing problem: “there’s an abuse in the system and we have to address it in a smart way. It includes potentially looking at a cap (in number of international students)”. Recent changes announced by Marc Miller, include both positive and potentially challenging aspects for international students in Canada. Extending the waiver on the 20-hour-per-week limit for off-campus work for international students is a positive move and will provide students with more flexibility to support themselves financially. However, by raising the cost-of-living financial requirement for study permits will pose a challenge for some international students, as they will need to show they have $20,635 in addition to their first year of tuition and travel costs. Additional measures, that limit student visas, is a cause for concern.

A visual survey asks: "How food insecure are you?". Stickers are placed to correspond to the responders' answers: yes, sometimes, no
“How food insecure are you?” – Student survey conducted by Kapish at Columbia College

The reality is that it is very hard to live and study in Canada due to high Tuition Fees and Limited Work Opportunities. International students pay significantly higher tuition fees than domestic students. For example, the tuition fee and associated living costs at SFU for domestic students per semester is somewhere around $11,000; however, for international students, the tuition fee is more than double at $28,000. Coupled with restrictions on work hours, this makes it hard for many to afford food. The minimum living wage in Vancouver is currently $25.68, but most international students work minimum wage jobs at $16.75 per hour. As a result, they are barely left with any money to purchase a sufficient amount of food after paying rent and other bills. 

One student said that he was unable to find affordable housing when he initially came here, and he had to spend a night or two at a bus stop awake the whole night. Completely unaware about the food system in Canada as well as scared and embarrassed to ask for help, he was compelled to skip meals for two consecutive days. He also added, “I wish there was more awareness about accessible food programs, so that no other student has to go through the problems I faced.”

Another classmate shared her experience: “As an international student, I’ve faced many challenges in Canada in terms of finding accommodation, a job and struggling with food in this rising inflation. I came here in Summer 2023, and I’ve lost over 8 pounds since then. I didn’t know food insecurity is such a major issue in Canada. I work minimum wage and pay around $800 for rent and $200 for basic bills and after that I have barely enough left to afford groceries. All I can get now for $50 is milk, eggs, bread and some basic veggies that barely last.”

Another student added, “I sometimes skip meals to save money. The high cost of living is really challenging. Everything here is so expensive. I recently came to know about the college’s snack kit program, and I have been relying on the food banks and other facilities since then. Sometimes, I feel embarrassed for doing so.”

I explored the prevalence of food insecurity among students in my college and in accordance with the Canadian government’s definition of food insecurity, I found out that approximately two-thirds of surveyed students encountered significant food insecurity. Those students who lived with family members experienced less or no food insecurity, adding evidence to the link between housing affordability and food insecurity. Some students admitted to feeling embarrassed when disclosing their experiences with food insecurity.

It’s evident that food insecurity among international students is a major issue and it has to be resolved as soon as possible. To address this problem, we must take collective action:

  1. Accessible Support Services: Universities and colleges should expand accessible food programs, offer meal plans at lower costs, and provide better financial counselling to international students. Also, activities that can help them in relieving their stress could include workshops for cooking, time management skills, managing finances and knowledge about nutrition. 
  2. Raise Awareness: We need to increase awareness about food insecurity among international students, especially highlighting its racial dimensions, to foster empathy and support. Also, awareness about community food programs through emails and notice boards can help students learn about available food supports. They should also be made aware of Canadian rights.
  3. Advocacy for Policy Changes: International student organizations, along with local community groups, should advocate for policy changes that address the unique challenges faced by international students. For example, colleges should offer installment plans for tuition fees which would give students more time to arrange payment with less pressure.

As an international student in Canada, I have personally experienced myself and have witnessed the struggles of my peers in accessing affordable and nutritious food. By understanding the challenges, sharing personal stories, and advocating for change, we can raise awareness and create a more inclusive and supportive environment for international students in Canada. Let’s ensure that no student has to choose between education and a meal.

by Kapish Chhabra

A group of five students standing in a semi-circle in front of Columbia College