Student Voices: Addressing Students' Food Insecurity Issues

Student-led "Converse & Cook" class not only teaches cooking methods, it gives participants a chance to share a meal with others

Mishma Mukith - 22 February 2018

Until a few months ago, food insecurity was a topic I rarely-if ever-thought about. I remember sitting in Remedy café, sipping my chai, when my good friend, Juanita Gnanapragasm, brought this issue into my periphery. Being knowledgeable and deeply passionate about this subject, Juanita explained to me that her recent interactions with numerous students living on or off campus for the first time almost always stemmed from worrying about food. "Some of us have never cooked before, some of us don't have a vehicle to get to and from grocery stores, and for those of us who are accustomed to specific cuisines, we don't know how to access those ingredients. Most importantly, for many, this is the first time we're eating alone."

These revelations sat like weights on my shoulder for weeks to follow. For someone who lives at home, I'm accustomed to having a fridge stocked with foods I love, and indulging in meals that are unique to my culture. Mealtimes are when I get to catch up with my loved ones, and most importantly, I have the privilege of escaping food-related anxieties because I have never had to worry about how I was going to buy food, or who was going to prepare it.

My mom always jokes that I can't survive on my own because I have never dabbled in the craft of cooking-but it wasn't until I was haunted by this concept of food insecurity that I saw the truth to her words. If I were living on my own, I wouldn't even know how to make rice-a food that was integral to most of my meals. I wouldn't know where to buy Halal meats, or the numerous curry powders that bring vibrancy and flavour to my favourite dishes. The more I thought about this, the more it haunted me. Food is not only a necessity, but it is also a social activity; eating together strengthens a sense of belonging and boosts morale.

Food is not only a necessity, but it is also a social activity; eating together strengthens a sense of belonging and boosts morale.

I knew that I wanted to do something, but tackling food insecurity is an overwhelming goal, especially for a 20-something-year-old student who thought she had no means for creating social change. I quickly learned, however, that being a catalyst for social change does not require extravagant resources-sometimes, it simply requires someone to step forward with an idea and carry it through.

When I expressed my interest in advocating for these issues, Juanita was the first to jump on board. Together, we brainstormed and applied for a student grant through the UAlberta Alumni Association, and several weeks later, our idea was approved for funding.

Juanita and I both knew that whatever our project was going to be, it needed to address both the accessibility and sociability components of meals. As we conversed with our fellow students, we began creating a list of barriers: transportation, basic cooking skills and lack of food safety education were among the recurring themes.

In attempts to address some of these barriers, we, along with three very enthusiastic former Community Service-Learning students, hosted the very first "Converse & Cook"- a cooking class that combines both elements of cooking fundamentals and socialization.

Our first class offered a choice between two dishes: lentil curry with roti, or pasta and sauces from scratch. Both dishes were budget-friendly, meaning that students could prepare them for less than $20, and each step was guided by our volunteers. We made sure that each group cooked enough so that everybody had the opportunity to try everything. Any leftovers were given to the participants to take home. Once both dishes were prepared, everybody sat at a dinner table and ate together.

While there has only been one Converse & Cook class on campus (so far), the overwhelming number of students who expressed interest is evidence that there is a need for such initiatives, and that they are doable. As I enter into the last semester of my degree, my challenge to my peers who have an idea for social change is: act on it. Apply for the grants available to you and pilot a project you believe in, and think of the ways you can make it sustainable so that it continues beyond you. It is possible, and it has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.