ALMOST three-quarters of Canadian universities and colleges are regularly handing out food to students, most of whom are finding their loans or part-time jobs not stretching far enough.
According to preliminary figures from the University of Calgary, 70 of 100 institutions across the country now operate food banks and soup kitchens.
Kathryn Sim, the coordinator of The Food Bank at Calgary, decided to collect the data because she wants government and the public to be made aware of students' dire financial straits.
"I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk and it gets used," she said. Many students arrive at her office, often after appealing to the university's financial aid services and "their egos have taken a beating".
Her service gave out 354 food hampers between September and January. The number of students visiting the office doubled in a year.
Many students are finding higher education too costly, almost two-and-a-half times more expensive than ten years ago, and loans and bursaries have not kept up. A quarter of students receive no parental support as Canadian unemployment approaches double figures. Fees and book prices have risen regularly.
Even the more prestigious universities, such as Queen's and the University of Toronto, are not immune to the campus food bank. Many student food banks, like Calgary's, take on the role of referral centre and try to provide a comfortable social environment.
On a recent Monday night at Montreal's Concordia University, about 20 students sat on couches, talking and eating lentil soup and salad. In an adjoining room of the weekly one-dollar dinner get-together known as Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, there were a dozen more students sitting around two tables.
For two hours, students stream in and out of the campus ministry, whose coordinator did not have religion in mind when setting up the dinner, as well as other services such as peer counselling and meditation. "I wanted to try to humanise the university environment," said Revd Daryl Ross, who says student poverty is a real issue. The university handed out 60 grocery store vouchers in the first month of 1998.
Suzanne Bate, an anthropology student who volunteers at Mother Hubbard, came for help after deciding she did not want to continue going to class hungry. Her loan, due in August, only arrived in November. The stress, she says, put her in hospital for eight days with a gastro-intestinal ailment. Even now, her Can$8400 (Pounds 3,612) in loans and bursaries cannot go far enough.