I like to think that I know everything when it comes to food at UTM. I can tell you where to buy the best blueberry muffin on campus or about my favourite dish at the Blind Duck, but until recently I knew next to nothing about the UTM Food Bank. As a typical member of our generation, I was a member of the UTM Food Bank Volunteer Facebook group, but I couldn’t even tell you where the food bank, officially established in 2007, was located on campus. (And neither could the students working at the InfoBooth, but thankfully I found a stack of UTMSU agendas to consult.) Determined to set myself—and maybe even other UTM students—straight, I finally visited the food bank located in the Student Centre, Room 241, earlier this month.
It’s surprisingly easy to use. During operating hours, students simply go to the food bank, write down their name (or codename if they wish to be anonymous), the date, and the items that they’ve chosen. When the new database and website launch in early March, this data will be logged virtually. Students will be able to order food without even going to the food bank itself.
I spoke to Noura Afify, the food bank coordinator and a third-year political science and sociology student, about its services and upcoming developments.
The Medium: How many students on average use the UTM Food Bank?
Noura Afify: An average for food bank usage would be very misleading. There are months [when] the food bank is used around 30 times and other times where it’s accessed twice. There are students who visit once a year and students who visit once a week.
TM: Is it really true that any student can use the food bank?
NA: All students are welcome to use the food bank without restrictions. Not only do our confidentiality principles prevent us from being able to screen or evaluate people, but we believe that such a process is unnecessary and undignified. Food is a right and it should be accessible to all.
TM: How do you determine how much students can take from the food bank?
NA: The students themselves do. Students often take much less than they need. […] If something runs out, it’s my responsibility to figure out a way to get more rather than putting pressure on students by enforcing limits. Students can take as much as they want, as often as they want, and they can always request more.
TM: What are the busiest times of year for the food bank?
NA: The busiest times of the year are always the end of the fall term and the beginning of the winter term. Because students’ budgets run out, [they face] financial drawbacks or are too busy with midterms and term papers to work.
TM: Do you offer any fresh food?
NA: Yes, we do. We have a shopping list request system. Students can email or leave their shopping list in our order box [located outside the food bank] before the first and the 15th of every month. Then, we go out to purchase those items and arrange a pickup with the students.
The Medium: What are your most requested items?
Noura Afify: The most requested non-perishable items tend to be meats (e.g. canned salmon), certain vegetables (e.g. canned potatoes), and toiletries. In terms of perishable food […] the items that we typically see on students’ shopping lists are basic meats, milk, eggs, bread, and vegetables.
TM: What items are you most in need of?
NA: We are in need of too many things: winter and summer clothes; toiletries; cooking basics such as oil, vinegar, and sugar. Meats, vegetables, and fruits are always in demand.
TM: Where do your donations come from?
NA: A big bulk of our donations come from food drives, [most notably] the Food for Fines campaign. Clubs and societies often hold food drives or events that require attendees to donate food at the door. Staff members contribute by holding office food drives. We have donation bins next to the InfoBooth in the Student Centre. Sometimes when a certain item is in demand, we announce it on our Facebook page and group. Then I check the donation bin a few days later and find that someone has dropped off that item.
TM: What kinds of donations do you not accept?
NA: As a food bank, we don’t have the power to not accept donations. We ask people to avoid donating certain things such as condensed canned soup, tomato pastes, and beans because we have these items in excess. […] Under the Ethical Food Banking Code, we can’t give out expired food items, but people still donate them.
TM: Does the food bank offer any other services for students?
NA: Serving students free food only provides temporary alleviation of a deeper issue. By understanding that hunger and poverty issues are systemic, we try to create a space for students to challenge that system. We are currently organizing a food justice assembly […] where students can exchange ideas, build a community and a movement that works to challenge the food system.
TM: How many volunteers does the food bank have? Do you have enough?
NA: We have a lot of volunteers, but because of the flexibility of our volunteering system, we don’t have enough people volunteering. We’ve begun to set up more permanent volunteer positions. We’re trying to create leadership opportunities for volunteers, where they can be actively involved in the planning and organization of the food bank’s activities to shape the service into something that works better for them.
TM: How does the university support the food bank?
NA: Many staff members have been supportive of the food bank [by] holding office food drives or events like Food for Fines. However, there are other ways for the university to support the food bank, like working to reduce student fees and food prices. There are many students who don’t eat all day while on campus because the food prices are so high.
TM: Are there any plans to develop the food bank in the future?
NA: We’re working on expanding and transforming the food bank into a food centre, organized around food sovereignty and democracy. It [will attempt] to connect people at all ends of the food system. Chartwells should not have the exclusive right to serve all food on campus and regulate food prices and quality without competition. Students will be able to get together and plan and improve food centre initiatives and programming. We will obviously still provide students with a food bank service, but there will be alternatives and it will be managed in a more equitable and empowering way. Food as a human right will become the central principle on which the food bank operates.
The student assembly meets every other Monday at 5 p.m. in the Student Centre, Room 100.
This interview has been edited for length.