Why we shouldn't glorify the 'starving student' stereotype

Food is practically synonymous with the university experience: bowls of ramen, cups of Kraft dinner, other similarly cheap and easy items.

Except that norm, that “oh, this is just the starving student thing, students eat ramen, ha ha ha,” masks a concerning problem, says Merryn Maynard — one that only deepens as the new semester wears on and student loans run short.

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“This starving student thing is really pervasive,” says Maynard, program and operations co-ordinator for Meal Exchange, an organization that tackles food issues on campus.

“A lot of them see this experience as completely normal, it’s something they experience that everyone experiences, and it’s this rite of passage.”

Maynard explores that perception in a report published recently in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education. In speaking to a group of undergraduate students about how they cope when they have to pick tuition, textbooks or rent over food, she got some troubling responses.

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One student said she couldn’t afford to pay for every meal so she started sleeping differently in order to deliberately miss breakfast. Another said she couldn’t bring herself to buy milk, telling researchers, “I feel like it’s splurging for some reason. ‘Cause it’s so expensive.”

It’s not a new issue.

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In 2016, Meal Exchange published a report called Hungry for Knowledge, revealing that while food insecurity varied widely among students, it was a significant issue for many: two in five students surveyed had experienced it in some severity and most, if not all, post-secondary institutions now have student food banks on campus.

But as Maynard’s most recent work — centred on interviews conducted with more than a dozen undergraduate students studying at the University of Waterloo in Ontario during the 2015/2016 school year — indicates, some students are shrugging off skipped meals, trips to the campus food bank, and choosing between textbooks and nutrition as yet another part of the student experience.

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Per the 2016 report, nearly half of all students surveyed said they passed up on healthy food in order to make rent, tuition, and buy textbooks.

“The banality with which students would talk about doing these things was quite shocking to me,” Maynard says. Especially, she says, when you consider the implications that the students themselves detailed to her.

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“They would talk about experiencing hunger and they would talk about experiencing social isolation and feeling guilt and feeling shame,” Maynard says. “Despite this idea, this sort of pervasive norm that being a starving student is normal, they were experiencing both physical and mental health ramifications from that.”

That mindset is starting to change, says Trina James, national treasurer for the Canadian Federation of Students.

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It’s hard to avoid the issue, she says, when you realize just how many students are accessing campus food banks or establishing their own campus food banks to support each other.

It’s all about tuition, James says.

“Food insecurity or the idea of the stereotype of the starving student mainly exists because of the rising costs of post-secondary education.”

That’s why there isn’t a quick fix, no one night of free food that will solve all.

“Addressing food insecurity on campus doesn’t necessarily mean hosting a pizza night,” James says It means “ensuring that post-secondary education is now affordable with more grants, more loans … so they’re able to cover basic needs such as food.”

Canada, particularly Ontario, prides itself on being a place where people have access to higher education, Maynard says, but what’s the cost?

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“What does that actually mean for a student on a day-to-day basis and what is it we are asking of them in order to be able to create a better life for themselves and to remain healthy both now and in the future?”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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