HomeBusiness & FinanceFood banks saved foreign students that skips meals to survive in Canada

Food banks saved foreign students that skips meals to survive in Canada

Food banks saved foreign students that skips meals to survive in Canada

By every formal requirement, Carlos Arturo Paez Gonzalez had all the financial security he needed to study in Canada.

But when he was down to one meal a day, he says, it was the campus food bank that kept him afloat.

The University of Toronto international student works three jobs, nearly 40 hours of work a week, on top of his classes, to make ends meet.

But he still feels the pressures of the growing cost of living in Canada.

“I was crying every day,” said the 20-year-old from Venezuela, reflecting on his first days in this country. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”

Gonzalez’s experience is far from unique. Food banks from coast to coast are seeing a surge of international students looking for help. It has prompted one operator in Brampton to ban them from using its services — setting off a flurry of controversy.

Meanwhile, others have pointed to misinformation on social media advertising food banks as a place for free food rather than a last resort for support.

The issue has put Canada’s fast-growing international student program in the spotlight once more, following a debate this summer over a housing crisis that turned to the potential capping of the admission of foreign students.



Some observers say the tension reflects the dire straits students from abroad are finding themselves in. That’s a result, they say, of exorbitant tuitions for these students, a lack of support from the institutions that are reaping the benefits of such fees, and an out-of-date assessment for determining whether potential international students have the resources to support themselves.



The number of study permit holders in Canada has tripled in the past decade, from 300,000 in 2013 to 900,000 this year. International students, through spending and tuition, contribute $22 billion to the economy and support 200,000 jobs.

With dwindling government funding, post-secondary education institutions have turned to international students as a revenue source.

Employers have also grown used to the ceaseless supply of students to fill low-wage jobs in fast-food joints, retail, warehouses, factories and gig work.

“From across the country, schools, employers and landlords are wringing every last drop from international students and now they’re being hung out to dry,” said Sarom Rho, an organizer with Migrant Students United, a national advocacy group for international students.

“First, it was the housing crisis. Now it’s the overuse of food banks. They’re being blamed even as international students are some of the worst impacted by the affordability crisis.”

While all Canadians are feeling the pinch of inflation, housing costs and grocery expenses, international students, many living alone here on tight budgets, are also faced with rising tuition fees that are already several times more than what their Canadian peers pay.

According to Statistics Canada, international tuition fees have gone up this fall by 4.3 per cent for graduate studies to an average $22,061 and 6.3 per cent for undergrads, at $38,081. These compared to the respective 2.2 per cent and three per cent raises for their Canadian counterparts.

The ban by the Ste. Louise Outreach Centre of Peel made national headlines, as food bank use in general has been on the rise. One in 10 Torontonians are now relying on food banks, up from one in 20 a year earlier, according to a report this week.



The Ste. Louise board president, Catherine Rivera, said international students are supposed to be able to provide for themselves — there are government regulations saying as much.

“They started coming in groups of three and four, and we can pretty well tell they’re students cause they’re quite young and they’ve got their backpacks on them, and they just want food,” Rivera told the Star.

“They’re not just coming to one or two (food banks), they’re going to churches, they’re going to multiple places, and that’s abuse. That comes to a level of abuse.”

The rapidly rising costs of tuition and living over the course of the pandemic weren’t what international students had prepared for.

In fact, the Immigration Department only requires study permit applicants to have paid their first year of tuition fee and hold a minimum $10,000 in bank account to show they can support themselves in Canada for one year — a threshold that has not been updated for years and has been described universally as out of touch with the reality of life in Canada nowadays.

In response to the higher costs of living post-pandemic, Australia raised the saving requirement of student visa applicants by 17 per cent in October to the equivalent of $22,000 Canadian.

Gonzalez, who is in his third year at U of T, had paid the nearly $60,000 in tuition costs and the additional $12,000 for on-campus housing. But when difficult circumstances led to unexpected costs for his family back home, he was left with a limited stipend.

He turned to the on-campus food bank for help. Now, he works there as a co-ordinator, among other part-time jobs, helping students that went through the same struggle.

A ban on international students would leave local international students in need with no options but to starve, Gonzalez said.

“For many international students, food banks are their lifelines,” he said, adding that it could mean for some “enough peace of mind to take care of their academics and mental health” while for others, the difference between one meal or none.

To him, a broad ban by food banks promotes the idea that international students are rich because they’ve been able to afford to come here and pay tuition, when in reality, it’s not that simple.



In September, the Daily Bread Food Bank released a report that found international students spent an average of $1,517 per month, double what’s required by the Immigration Department.

During the pandemic, the federal government lifted the 20-hour limit to let international students work full-time off-campus. However, the survey showed 69 per cent of employed students worked less than 20 hours a week and it took 22 per cent of them more than five months to land a job.

Meanwhile, everyday costs have soared. A recent report by the Ontario Living Wage Network found Toronto-area workers need to make at least $25 an hour to live in the city, while current minimum wage for the province is $16.55.

The Immigration Department said it recognizes studying abroad is expensive but would not say if it plans to raise the proof-of-fund threshold for study permit applicants.

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities said publicly funded post-secondary institutions may provide financial assistance to international students in the form of scholarships, bursaries, awards, loans, grants, employment opportunities and fellowships.

The government-mandated $833 a month that Aanya Sinha had to show for her student visa isn’t even enough to cover her $950 rent. That’s before piling on utilities, which usually come in at $80 to $100, $50 each for a phone plan and internet, plus a $120 transit pass.

The 19-year-old U of T student from India thought she understood how expensive life would be — but since her first year living here, costs have ballooned.

She now works an on-campus job as a videographer, but even with that and the support of the campus food bank, she says she still has to skip meals occasionally.

“The food centre doesn’t have enough resources always to cover the needs of everyone that is there,” Sinha said. In recent months, it has received fewer and fewer pallets of food to give out, as demand has grown.

Both Gonzalez and Sinha pointed to the high, unregulated international tuition as one of the root causes of their food insecurity.

At Cape Breton University — where three-quarters of the 9,000 students came from overseas this fall — the campus food bank dispenses some 1,000 food bags a month, about 85 per cent of the users are here on study permits.

Sahil Chatha, the student union president, said international students are particularly strained because they have little financial support such as bursaries and scholarships usually available to domestic students only.

While the government’s one-time pandemic policy to allow international students to work unlimited hours has helped relieve some of the financial pressure, he said it’s a double-edged sword. Some students are willing to take up extra work hours and compromise their studies, but Chatha said it also means their newly arrived peers are having a tougher time landing a job because there are fewer hours and positions available as a result.

While raising the $10,000 funding threshold may deter prospective students from coming if they don’t have enough resources, he said it could affect local labour markets that count on these students.

“What do you do if you drive up to the Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and Walmart, and no one is working there?” asked Chatha, who worked 18 months driving cabs part time when he first came. “What would you do if there were no international students here?”

Rho of the Migrant Students United said many international students do multiple jobs to survive, but still can’t afford to dine out or don’t have the time to cook.

“They’re stretched incredibly thin from going to classes in a makeshift office building, then travelling very far to Scarborough or Brampton for work, spending hours on transit,” said Rho. “They are eating a lot of beans and rice, but this kind of food takes time to cook. So they’re simply going hungry.”

Toronto’s Sai Dham Food Bank began its international student food program at the onset of the pandemic. Since then, it has registered more than 8,000 international student clients from 49 colleges and universities in the Golden Horseshoe.

These days, some 150 international student clients a week come through its door — triple from a year ago — to pick up the basic food bag, filled with rice, flour, sugar, salt, a variety of lentils, along with some personal hygiene products such as soap and shampoo.

The food bank’s co-founder, Vishal Khanna, said these students are particularly vulnerable because they lack family and social supports.

“Very few of the students come back to us for three, four times,” said Khanna, whose organization serves meals to 25,000 Canadian seniors, people with disabilities and schoolchildren a month. “They are not abusing the system.”

He said the situation isn’t the students’ fault; rather, the schools and governments should support the students after opening the doors to them.

“They are only looking at the revenues that are coming in,” said Khanna. “That’s billions of dollars.”

Raising the proof of funding required for the study permit, he said, would only create more hardship to international students, as many families borrow money to send them here.

While these students do need help, there’s also misunderstanding of what food banks are meant for, said Nelson Chukwuma, president of the student union at Kitchener-based Conestoga College, where international students make up more than half of the enrolment.

A food bank “is a new concept for them. It’s about educating them,” said Chukwuma, whose organization has tripled its food support budget to $900,000 in 2023. “Some see it as, ‘Oh, they’re giving away free food.’ Yes, it’s free, but it’s for emergency support. It’s not just for students but all community members to know.

“So one person says, I went to this place and it’s a food bank and they’re giving away free food. It just basically snowballs.”

This summer, the Conestoga student union started using pamphlets and social media to inform students that food banks are for emergency use only and other food programs are available on campus.

Chatha of the Cape Breton student union said it’s disappointing that some food banks are turning away international students amid a global affordability crisis.

“We are not just international students,” lamented Chatha, who came here in 2021 from India to study public administration. “We are part of the community ourselves.”




This article was reported by The Star