Being a graduate student at a Canadian university can be challenging. Not only are graduate students focused on their own research and school work, but they often have additional tasks like securing grants and other funding. Many graduate students at Queen’s University also work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) to make enough money to continue in their programs.
On top of these challenges, a number of graduate students have an additional concern that can distract them from their ability to focus on their studies and work: food insecurity. With sky-high food prices and other economic conditions making it harder for most Canadians to afford groceries, graduate students at Queen’s University have been reporting increased levels of food insecurity over the past few years.
In January of 2023, The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901, the union representing graduate student workers at Queen’s, established the Emergency Food Support Program, which gave gift cards to students in need to help them afford necessary grocery items. According to Justyna Szewczyk-El Jassem, President of PSAC Local 901, the initiative came about after the union heard many of its members were experiencing “extreme financial distress.”
Szewczyk-El Jassem explained, “[We], the executive of the union,… are graduate student workers, so we know how bad it is for us, but [we also started] realizing this is a collective issue. It’s not just about us having individual problems, but this is a collective problem. So we started talking about how we could remedy that.”
While the program was in place, the union distribute $75 grocery cards each week to eligible students — a very popular and high-demand initiative. In total, PSAC901 provided $80,000 in gift cards to graduate students from January to November.
After the program was initially suspended in May following its first iteration, PSAC 901 brought the initiative back this past October.
In total, more than 800 applications were received from students looking to take advantage of the fund, with additional support available to those with dependents. The program was supported in part by significant donations from the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) members. PSAC Local 901 was also able to redistribute various budget resources toward the Emergency Food Support Program.
“We had a hardship fund bursary that we decided to reallocate towards food insecurity, as this is such a widespread problem… We managed to run it until the end of November… after spending over $80,000,” Szewczyk-El Jassem said. “It’s not even the beginning of what needs to be done, to be really, really honest.”
While the program was successful in terms of providing tens of thousands of dollars to students in need, the union eventually ran out of money and had to suspend the fund entirely. Szewczyk-El Jassem confirmed the program is unlikely to return in 2024, as the resources PSAC 901 directed to the project have now been depleted.
In a statement to members issued last week, the union’s executive wrote, “The demand for assistance has far surpassed our available financial capacity, and we find ourselves unable to sustain support for our food-insecure members and their dependents.”
While Szewczyk-El Jassem is pleased the union was able to step up for its members in times of need, she said it shouldn’t be the responsibility of a union to provide food support for its members.
“This is not the job of a labour union: to be feeding members. This is the job of the employer, Queen’s University. The university, as an educational institution, has a responsibility to [ensure] students do not go hungry,” the union president said.
After PSAC Local 901 was forced to suspend the fund, the Society of Graduate and Professional Studies (SGPS), the official student organization representing Queen’s University’s graduate students, stepped up to launch a similar initiative of its own. Unfortunately, the SGPS was forced to suspend its Food Insecurity Relief Program after just 24 hours, due to “overwhelming demand” from applicants. During its first day, the SGPS program received 258 applications.
With both support funds now unavailable, graduate students experiencing food insecurity have limited options of where to turn. According to Szewczyk-El Jassem, the Alma Mater Society (AMS) offers a food bank which graduate students are able to access. However, the union president noted the arrangement is less than ideal. “This is an organization for undergrads,” she said. Yet according to an AMS report, around 50 per cent of the users were graduate students.
The union president added that the AMS food bank offers “beautiful solidarity… but this is not a solution.” Szewczyk-El Jassem also noted the previous funds offered through the union and the SGPS gave students more flexibility and choice, compared to the limited food options available at the food bank.
“We wanted to provide maximum autonomy to our members, so they can choose, as [adults], what they want to eat. The food bank doesn’t offer this freedom,” she said, noting that many graduate students are international students who may not always find the food they are looking for at food banks.
With the economic situation as dire as it is for so many graduate students, Szewczyk-El Jassem explained many prospective students are reconsidering a future in graduate studies.
“I, in good faith, would not recommend anybody to come to grad school,” she acknowledged.
Asked what the university could do to help alleviate the financial stress many graduate students are currently experiencing, Szewczyk-El Jassem said administrators should rethink their push to have the provincial government lift the tuition freeze in Ontario.
“From our perspective, the [inflation] crisis is everywhere, but why are we to pay for it? It’s offsetting the cost of the crisis onto people who are already vulnerable, already precarious. With the levels of poverty we’re seeing among graduate student workers… it’s going to be stressful. Now is bad, and what is coming could be even worse. This is adding a lot of hardship,” she said.
The university has pointed to the tuition freeze in Ontario as one of the main contributing factors to its $62.8 million deficit.
Union issues an appeal to prominent Queen’s donor
Despite the pessimistic outlook for many graduate students, members of PSAC Local 901 are hoping one Queen’s University benefactor will step up to help those in need. On Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, the union issued a letter to Stephen J.R. Smith, asking for $500,000 to reinstate the Emergency Food Support Program. Smith recently donated $100 million to the university’s engineering program, which was renamed Smith Engineering.
In the letter to Smith, the union noted 30 per cent of winter 2023 applications for the food support program came from graduate students in the engineering program. “Your donation was excitedly announced to our members as the meeting of momentum and magnitude. We believe that momentum would actually meet magnitude if no graduate student employee needed to apply for emergency food support programs or go to food banks run by their employer, as Queen’s University often urges us to do,” read the letter.
The union added, “We find it challenging to share in the excitement while we are aware that graduate student employees, including many in Smith Engineering, are living well below the poverty line… We are asking you to extend your generosity directly to graduate student employees, who make Queen’s the unforgettable and transformative experience that prompted your return.”
Szewczyk-El Jassem said the union has not yet received a response from Smith.
According to the Queen’s University website, there are several different food support options available to students on campus. The Swipe it Forward Program provides students in need short-term access to meals, through credits on the student card. The program works by giving students with a meal plan the option to donate unused meals to students in need.
Meanwhile, the AMS-run Providing Equal Access, Changing Hunger (PEACH) Market offers untouched food from across the university’s hospitality services, through a ‘pay what you can’ operating model. The school also directs students to other off-campus food support options, including Martha’s Table and the Partners in Mission Food Bank.