Pranay Roy Bochu is buying a lot more “flash food” these days — food that’s about to expire and sold at discounts.
It’s one of many ways the second-year Holland College student has been dealing with rising food costs.
He plans carefully before going shopping, recently switched to the cheapest cellphone plan and has cut down on fast food, which is now a luxury for him.
“I have been reducing the other prices so that I can accommodate that amount into the grocery,” he said.
“For me as an international student, living here is very difficult.”
Bochu isn’t alone.
Across the country, people are grappling with increasing food prices as Canada’s inflation rate rose to 5.1 per cent in January, its highest level since 1991.
But the issue puts a greater burden on international students, said Bochu, as they are not permitted to work more than 20 hours per week while classes are in session.
He is living on a tight budget because of the 20-hour constraint while working part-time earning minimum wage for a Charlottetown grocery store.
“My income has been constant for more than a year, whereas the expenses which I have been facing over this period of time have been increasing.”
‘Can’t chase employment on an empty stomach’
Tolulope Oginni, president of the UPEI African Student Association, recently started a grocery support program to help international students like Bochu.
She said she’s been hearing more and more from students on campus about food insecurity and getting questions about where to get cheaper groceries, two years into the pandemic.
“Students are still trying to figure out a way to climb up and find that stability like it was before COVID,” she said.
“I need to just help them out one way or the other.”
International students from UPEI, Holland College and Collège de l’Île are welcome to apply. If approved, they receive a $100 coupon to the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market and a $100 grocery gift card.
The program was created in collaboration with the Atlantic Student Development Alliance where Daniel Ohaegbu is the founder.
Either they can pay rent or they have to pay food. There’s always a choice to be made, which is very unhealthy.— Leena Daboo
The organization works with international students and graduates on P.E.I. to help them find employment, but food insecurity hinders those efforts, Ohaegbu said.
“We hear a lot on the ground and a lot of students are being affected,” he said.
“You can’t chase employment on an empty stomach.”
Either rent or food
Leena Daboo, the UPEI Student Union’s vice-president finance, said lack of access to healthy food is another challenge international students are facing.
The UPEISU launched an emergency funding program back in 2019 where students can ask for $250 to $750 to deal with unexpected situations, such as loss of income.
Daboo said most applications were initially COVID-related, but now those applying for the funding need help with basics like groceries, winter clothing and rent.
“They have to choose between buying winter jackets or they have to choose between buying food. The same situation was with paying rent. Either they can pay rent or they have to pay food,” she said.
“There’s always a choice to be made, which is very unhealthy to think about because a student should be able to afford food.”
When Daboo started with the UPEISU last summer, she said they received about 30 applications for the emergency fund — this week alone, she’s received 200.
Due to the large number of requests, the union has decided to keep this program going, but they can’t grant every student who applies the full amount they ask for, Daboo said.
If approved, a student typically receives $250.
“For students who can’t afford rent or don’t have money to pay [for] food, we try to give each student around $250 so they can sustain themselves,” she said.
“It really breaks your heart seeing so many students going through these situations, and as much as you want to help each and every one of them, it is very hard with the amount of funds that we have.”
Recently Daboo and the union introduced another program that provides a $50 gift card to Walmart because many of the students applying for help from the emergency fund say they don’t have the money to buy food.
She said they’ve received about 65 applications so far, and about 40 students have already gotten their gift cards.
Another group on P.E.I. is also running a food support program to provide healthy, affordable food not only for international students but Islanders of colour in general.
Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour United for Strength, Home, Relationship (BIPOC-USHR) got $35,000 in funding from Second Harvest in February to run a food support program that will go until the end of June.
Those interested in receiving food support from BIPOC-USHR can fill out a survey on the group’s website.