In a rare move, Carleton University students are deciding this week whether to support a direct $2.98-per-term levy to help fund the campus food bank.

A referendum will determine whether the Unified Support Centre (USC), which provides food hampers, health products and other necessities to struggling students, will be able to meet a huge increase in demand for its services.

Most food banks at post-graduate institutions in Ontario get funding and supplies from a variety of sources, including general student association fees. For example, Algonquin College’s food cupboard is funded from student activity fees and donations; the Queen’s University AMS food bank is run on donations. Capital Current is not aware of another university where a direct fee for the food bank is being voted on by students.

The USC’s Services Fulfilment & Development Supervisor, Neeni Saha, told Capital Current, “Most things we have are donated to us through the Ottawa Food Bank … and the Ottawa Public Health Society … but we’ll go out and purchase ourselves just to make sure our students have at least the basics.”

USC’s Neeni Saha walks listeners through the campus food bank. [Video @ Jackson Loy, Jayden Dill]

The current budget for the USC about $90,000 a year, the bulk of which comes from what is known as the undergraduate foot-patrol levy, which is $1.43 per term, per student and amounts to roughly $66,000. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this was enough to help the 80 students a month using the service, Saha said. Now, more than 600 students a month use the hamper service and the budget is no longer adequate.

Graph showing the rise in demand for hampers

“The needs have grown as inflation rises,” said Saha. “We’ve had to do several Costco runs a week because we have been so frequently out of the products that we offer. We’ve even had to cancel folks’ food hampers because we just don’t have enough.”

According to recent projections, the USC needs an additional $120,000 per year to continue not just the food hamper program but its overall operations as well. Other services include things such as the USC foot patrol service and suicide prevention training.

Carleton student Logan Lemay said he thinks a direct food-bank levy is only fair to help those who need it. “Like honestly it’s only $3, I think if that’s what they need to make sure people don’t starve, I’m all for it,” said Lemay. “I didn’t even know we had a food bank so I think, definitely, more funding means more people can take advantage of it.”

Empty shelves and empty pockets are shown at the USC Food Bank as the hamper program’s future hangs on this week’s referendum. [Photo @ Jackson Loy]

There are some students who disagree.

“I get that it’s not a lot to pay but this just seems like something that is only going to grow with time,” said Carleton student Jonah Cook. “There are food banks off campus people can use if they really need help, and those food banks don’t force me to pay anything to support them.”

Voting on the referendum runs alongside student association elections until Oct. 18.