Leaving the starving student behind

Food insecurity and the toxic culture that surrounds eating at McGill

Sarah Farnand, Sports Editor

Content warning : Eating disorders

Every McGill student has likely trekked to the library for a study session, and emerged five hours later, stomach grumbling, head aching, needing food close and quick. But not every McGill student can afford a $13.56 salad from Redpath or a $6.37 cup of fruit from RVC. Food options for students on campus are largely limited and inaccessible. McGill residence mandatory meal plans are $6,200 and only provide access to a limited array of pricey options that quickly eat up this budget. With such high costs of food piled onto the high costs of living, as well as the cost of tuition, many students struggle with finances and find themselves undergoing malnourishment in order to save money.

Food insecurity is when someone does not have adequate resources to properly feed themselves nutritiously or at all. While, according to a study by the Hungry for Knowledge, Quebec reportedly has the lowest rate of household food insecurity of any province, nearly 40 per cent of Canadian university students report facing some degree of food insecurity. The study also found that the cost of food, tuition fees, and housing costs were the most common contributors to food insecurity. Food insecurity disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and 2SLGTBQIA+ individuals that are already underserved on university campuses and creates barriers to student success and general wellness. McGill has done little to support students after their tuition spike for certain programs in 2020 and a rise in inflation. Food prices at McGill are only increasing and McGill Dining Services has no real options for students who may not be able to shoulder these hefty costs. And McGill’s completely student-run food bank, the Midnight Kitchen Collective (MK), no longer serves daily lunches after just returning from a two-year shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MK is a nonprofit collective that serves to combat food insecurity among students and in the broader Montreal community. They offer biweekly free prepackaged meal pickups and free catering for events that align with their political mandate of anticapitalism. But the program only has enough resources to provide 50 meals for each meal service, which is not enough to meet their community’s high demand.

At Concordia, Le Frigo Vert is a collective that offers healthy, fresh, culturally diverse, and affordable food, as well as a safe space to relax, work on community projects, or host events. One of their main goals is to combat the stigma associated with using food services on campus.

“I see people struggle to feel okay accessing [Frigo Vert], so we try to reassure people and remind people that everyone goes through different times of need. We are an antipoverty organization so we think a lot about that kind of thing,” Hunter Cubitt-Cooke, a Frigo Vert employee and organizer, said. “I personally grew up poor, and there is definitely class shame.”

Cubitt-Cooke spoke about Aramark, a greenwashing food company contracted by Concordia and McGill dining services to provide food for students. The quality of their meals is notoriously poor: They service multiple prisons in the U.S. who have reported rotten meals and food crawling with maggots, or partially eaten by rodents. Hunter emphasized the importance of putting pressure on both universities to provide high-quality, affordable food to students.

McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle summarized the options open to students struggling financially in an email statement to The McGill Tribune.

“For those looking for budget-friendly meals, many options prepared in-house are available, including the healthy and well-balanced hot meal of the day,” Mazerolle wrote. “Additionally, various meal plans are available, including the Saver Meal Plan, a tax-exempt meal plan best suited for those who plan to eat often on-campus.”

In reality, though, students have few choices if they want to save money on food. Mazerolle’s response ignores the high cost of food on campus, as well as the outrageous $6,200 cost of the meal plan enforced on first-year students in residences. Even if these students wanted to cook their own meals, resources are sparse. In New Residence Hall, for instance, there are only communal kitchens on two floors out of 12.

The mandatory meal plan is not only financially costly, but can also be harmful to students who struggle or have struggled with disordered eating habits. U0 Science student Alexandria Taylor experienced this firsthand at New Residence’s dining hall.

“My biggest complaint about New Rez’s dining hall specifically is that they seem to serve people based on their looks,” Taylor said. “I often see tall, muscular guys with mountains of food on their plates—my roommate even heard one of the staff ask a guy which cut of meat he wanted—while I’m usually given the smallest portion automatically. This is upsetting not only because I’m paying the same price for my food, but because I also suffered from anorexia in the past and I’m familiar with unhealthy portion sizes.”

Outside residence cafeterias, students have to feed themselves, often for the first time. When compounded with the significant financial and academic stresses of university, this responsibility makes them especially vulnerable to disordered eating habits.

“It is easier to engage in restrictive eating or binge eating if you have these tendencies when you have the freedom of cooking for yourself, or you don’t have structured meals with family,” Ege Biçaker, a PhD student in psychology, explained in an interview with the Tribune. “Structured meals, having three meals in a day, dispersed within four or five parts so that you won’t feel extremely hungry is the first plan of action in eating disorder treatment.”

Structure is difficult or impossible for many food-insecure individuals. They are often thrust into a cycle of “feast-or-famine” in which food intake oscillates in correspondence with food availability. When one attempts to restrict food, whether voluntarily or not, it can cause various cognitive, emotional, and behavioural changes, such as preoccupation with food-related thoughts, increased emotional reactivity, and a tendency to binge once restrictions are lifted. Food insecurity among adults has repeatedly been associated with a greater likelihood of binge eating as well as other specific eating disorder diagnoses.

In the university setting, financial and academic pressures intersect to contribute to disordered eating. Students working more than 20 hours a week to pay the costs of living and tuition were found to struggle more with academics than students who worked less than 20 hours or not at all. Equipped with a newfound freedom over their diets, students might forgo the time-consuming practice of cooking nutritious meals to prioritize studies, work, or social activities over health.

“When people are going off to university, making ends meet is a huge stressor in general.This might be the first time that you've had to pay your rent and pay your bills and buy your own food,” Alison MacNeil, a PhD student in clinical psychology at McGill, told the Tribune .

“A lot of food insecure youth who are in undergrad have said that […] if they had enough time, they could go buy lower cost things at the grocery store and prepare a meal and that would maybe stretch their money further [....] But they just don't have the time to, and time is money in a way, right?”

The starving university student who just eats ramen or other cheap, instant meals every day is a trope that should not be normalized. Instead, we need to look at the reasons why universities foster an environment where mental health disorders run rampant. In 2019, the National College Health Assessment found that almost 70 per cent of students at Canadian postsecondary institutions felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous 12 months. Similarly, a survey in the United States found that 73 per cent of university students experience some sort of mental health crisis during university. Rates of eating disorders, in particular, rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among university-aged women, the rates rose from just over 30 per cent to 51.8 per cent in 2021. For men, the prevalence rose from 13 to 31 per cent. Biçaker explained that the high volume of stressors on campuses can lead to disordered eating, which in itself is a stressor, causing a vicious cycle.

“Eating itself reduces the activity of the system that is responsible for managing stress in our body [....] So it is natural that we turn to food when we are distressed,” Biçaker explained. “When one [has] strict rules about what to eat or not to eat, it is inevitable that they will break them. And once they break them they might feel especially stressed and especially guilty.”

Dr. Salah El Mestikawy, a professor in psychiatry at McGill, explained that the pathology of eating disorders also makes them more prevalent in environments with high-achieving cultures like McGill.

“What I know from this pathology is that it amplifies your ability to learn. So that's why very often anorexic patients are what we call overachievers. They learn very quickly, and they can learn anything [....] So my guess is that not only McGill but everywhere in this society where you have difficult challenges, you must have a lot of people with this genetic vulnerability.”

Actual diagnoses for eating disorders are often rare cases compared to the prevalence and promotion of disordered eating habits commonly on display at McGill. I hear classmates and friends bragging daily about not eating. Remarks like “Wow, it’s 5 p.m. and all I’ve eaten today is a banana” are familiar refrains.

“Diet culture is prevalent in all settings, but it's especially pertinent in universities,” Liam Fowler from Safely Connected, McGill’s Eating Disorder Resource Centre, said in an interview with the Tribune. “Not only is it in an environment that perpetuates a lot of that toxic culture that is harmful to both our mental and physical wellbeing, it's also an age where we're very susceptible to societal influences. And so the combination of those two factors creates this space that's super fostering of disordered habits and disordered eating.”

For me, after moving to Montreal, finding the balance of eating healthy and eating enough, all while dealing with the stresses of university and living alone for the first time, was extremely difficult. While I am in the privileged position of food security, seeing food as an ally rather than an enemy has been challenging. Battling feelings of internalized fatphobia and fear of weight gain poisoned my relationship with food and exercise for much of my university experience.

In terms of next steps for McGill, MacNeil believes it is imperative to recognize the multiple societal and systemic contributors to this issue.

“There's a lot of elitism at McGill, and that it might not be sort of socially acceptable for someone to access a resource like [a food bank],” MacNeil said. “I think broadly, subsidizing or lowering the cost of foods on campus would make a huge difference. There's issues with housing [as well], food doesn't exist on its own [in a vacuum]. So if someone has to pay double what they would have paid in rent five years ago to live near school and go to school, that's cutting into their food budget.”

Because of the intersections of food insecurity with other systemic failures like the housing crisis, we must shatter the common misconception that eating disorders predominantly affect young, white upper-class women, so that solutions for food insecurity do not leave marginalized groups behind. White individuals, in fact, have the lowest rates of food insecurity compared to other racial groups. Indigenous peoples in Canada are most greatly affected, with almost 31 per cent living in food insecure households, just among those surveyed. (Indigenous peoples are historically underrepresented in national surveys, meaning this number is likely much higher.)

“The reality is that the folks who are often really struggling are from different cultural communities or marginalized groups where mental health is [not] discussed as much,” MacNeil said.

Fowler believes that having conversations about the harms of disordered eating and normalizing such dialogue on campus is an important step in ensuring that solutions are inclusive.

“Not taking away from the severity of the experience, but I think accepting the degree to which [disordered eating] is occurring, is one way that will open up the space,” said Fowler. “And within that, ensuring that the space is representative of everyone and inclusive and inviting to everyone, as the ones that are most susceptible are oftentimes the ones that are at least represented.”

Dr. El Mestikawy also noted that learning the biology behind eating disorders may help patients feel less responsibility and shame, as they cannot help their pathology.

“If people know this mechanism, it will not cure them, but will probably help them. Knowing that it's your putamen, and your habits that are pushing you to [restrict food] because anorexic [people] are not stupid. They know that something is really wrong and they know what's going on in their brain [....] Be better with yourself, know that you're not guilty. This is something beyond your control.”

It is important to recognize the numerous financial and academic stressors that we, as students, endure. McGill's failure to provide accessible and healthy food wreaks a devastating impact on our mental and physical wellbeings. Just like how learning about pathology can help students rid feelings of guilt, critiquing the roots of food insecurity and disordered eating on campus can be a way forward to bringing in nutritious, more affordable dining options in our campus buildings and fostering a healthier culture amongst students surrounding food.

Collective groups like Midnight Kitchen and Frigo Vert have proven that high-quality, nutritious foods do not have to be out of reach. With environmental conditions that foster mental health disorders such as disordered eating, McGill needs to prioritize student health over profit to make sure food insecurity doesn’t exacerbate already critical issues.

For those looking for support, Safely Connected offers several resources for students struggling with disordered eating, including a peer to peer support forum, as well as virtual support groups on the weekends.

Illustrations by Mika Drygas, Design Editor