TORONTO - Changes to post-secondary tuition fees in Ontario have sparked concern that school food banks could lose money, which could lead to some students going hungry.
The so-called student choice initiative, announced by the provincial government in January, allows college and university students to opt out of fees that fund campus groups, student newspapers and clubs.
Some fees remain mandatory, such as for walk-safe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation, and academic support. Others, for campus newspapers and food banks, are optional.
The result is that student unions, which oversee the funds, won't know the opt-out numbers — or their budgets — until weeks into the school year.
Chemi Lhamo, president of the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus Students Union, said she worries the campus food bank will be hampered in helping students in need.
"When you see students lining up to get these resources, that's how you know that there's a need," Lhamo said. "And we're not actually doing enough."
The province has said the opt-out change gives students more control of their money, but critics say vulnerable students will be left without much needed services.
Sofia Descalzi, national chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students, said the government measure has made food bank fees non-essential and created budget uncertainty.
"This puts food banks in a precarious situation because they don't know how much food they can afford to buy for students or how many staff they can hire," Descalzi said. "Food banks are concerned they may have to turn students who are in need away."
In May, the federation launched a legal challenge that asks the courts to quash the government's directive.
While the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities refused to comment on the case, it did defend the change.
"The student choice initiative will ensure that ancillary fees are clearly communicated to all students, so that students may choose which services they support on their campuses," a ministry spokeswoman said.
Student union services cost around $3 per student for the school year and some of that goes to the campus food bank, which serves around 200 students annually, Lhamo said. She said she was looking at other options such as grants, donations and relying on volunteers to offset potential budget cuts.
Lhamo said she hasn't hired a food bank co-ordinator, because of the financial uncertainty.
"The student union has prioritized the food centre over everything because we want to serve the most vulnerable folks within our community, but that has been made much more difficult," Lhamo said.
Bardia Jalayer, president of the University of Western Ontario’s undergraduate student union, said the university's food bank has had about 1,000 requests for service since 2016, and demand is increasing.
The food banks could end up in even greater need after the Ford government scrapped free tuition for low-income students and replaced it with a mix of grants and loans.
"This is putting pressure on students, who are now going to either be in more debt or receiving less funding," Jalayer said.
A report released in 2016 from Meal Exchange, a national charitable organization, said two in five students suffer from food insecurity — the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food of a sufficient quantity. The report surveyed 4,500 post-secondary students at four universities in Ontario and one in Alberta.
Bunisha Samuels, with the Alma Mater Society at Queen's University, said food insecurity impacts academic performance because students worry about their next meal instead of focusing on their studies.