SYDNEY, N.S. — The student union president at Cape Breton University said food insecurity has become a concern for many students and the on-campus food bank cannot keep up with demand.
Damanpreet Singh said the student-run food bank at the university in Sydney, N.S., gives out 50 packages of food daily, but as many as 100 students a day are reaching out to the food bank for help each weekday.
“We are really struggling with big line-ups for the food bank,” Singh said in an interview.
“We need more food packages, and in order to make more packages, we need more staff, more space and more money."
Singh said the food bank has recently set up a system for students to sign up for a food package on a first-come-first-serve basis online. This means students can book an appointment to pick up the food instead of waiting in long lines, but the demand still far exceeds what they can offer.
The student union president said he believes that the need for food is likely tied to the rising cost of living in Sydney and the scarcity of available work.
Singh said that since he moved to Sydney in May 2021, the typical rent he and his friends pay has jumped from $350 per month for a room to between $500 and $800 monthly. There are also fewer units available, he added.
The housing crunch coincides with Cape Breton University’s recent population growth. The university has acknowledged the rapid hike in student numbers and said in December it would reduce the number of new student spaces for some of its popular programs.
The increase in student population is due in large part to international student recruitment, and the university has been criticized for accepting more students that it can adequately house.
An October 2021 report from the Association of Atlantic Universities found that this fall, nearly 4,000 international students were enrolled at Cape Breton University out of about 5,900 total students. That is up from about 2,400 international students in 2021, when the school had about 4,200 students. In 2017, the university had fewer than 900 international students out of about 2,600 total students.
International students at Cape Breton University pay between $18,915 and about $19,580 a year in tuition, which is about twice as much as the $9,810 that Canadian residents pay.
A spokesperson for the university said there are currently 7,300 registered students at the school in total, with 1,500 set to graduate in May.
Singh said that in order to deal with the rising cost of housing and food, many students try to work part-time or full-time jobs alongside their studies, which is proving difficult.
“But because Sydney is a small town, we don't have many jobs here and right now students are struggling to find both accommodations and jobs,” he said.
Singh would like to see the province and the university offer more assistance to student-run support services such as the food bank.
“We’re using some of our union budget for the food bank, and recently we got some donations from organizations," he said. "But we are hopeful for any donations (from) any organization or government because the demand is really high here."
A spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services said it hasn’t received a funding request from Cape Breton University’s food bank, but that it has recently put money toward food banks in the province.
Jill Elsworth, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email that it supports its employees in donating to the student union food bank.
She added that some students are not familiar with the purpose of food banks in Canada and said the school is working on information sessions to assist students with cooking on a budget and using a food bank if necessary.
Singh said it's possible that some students are confused about the purpose of the food bank, but that the "majority of them are really in need."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press