Food insecurity among University of Waterloo undergraduate students: Barriers, coping strategies, and perceived health and academic implications
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Background: Food insecurity, which refers to uncertain or inadequate access to food due to financial constraints, represents a serious public health problem in Canada. Although post-secondary students may be vulnerable due to high tuition fees and related factors, relatively little is known about experiences of food insecurity among this population. Research aim and objectives: To gain a better understanding of the experience of food insecurity among University of Waterloo undergraduate students, including perceived barriers and facilitators to food security, the strategies used to manage shortages of food and money for food, perceptions regarding implications for health and academic achievement, and suggestions for improving food security for post-secondary students. Methods: A mixed methods design included semi-structured in-depth interviews complemented by demographic and health surveys. The adult items from the Household Food Security Survey Module were used to determine participants’ food security status. Students were recruited using flyers posted on campus and distributed at the Feds Student Food Bank. Eligible participants included undergraduate students who lived off campus and provided an indication of compromised food access based on inadequate finances in response to an online screening questionnaire (n=14). Study design and thematic analysis was informed by Layder’s (1998) adaptive theory and Alaimo’s (2005) conceptual model of food insecurity. Results: Students felt that their food security included both quantity and quality of food. Students experienced common elements, including a preoccupation with the food supply, timing of food shortages, qualitative food compromises, and a desire to be independent. Students encountered a variety of barriers to food access and healthy eating, such as the food environment, food literacy, and time. However, precarious financial situations contributed most prominently to students’ food insecurity. Students bought into the norm of the starving student lifestyle, whereby precarious finances, unhealthy eating, limited time, and stress over school were typical and commonplace. Students adopted a variety of coping strategies to manage their food supply, including accessing emergency food programs, finding free meals, food sharing, borrowing food or money for food, normalizing their situation, and demonstrating resiliency. Further, food insecurity was perceived to have a negative impact on their academic achievement and health and wellbeing. Conclusions: This study has begun to fill the gap in research on student food insecurity and its implications in Canada. These exploratory findings suggest that food insecurity among post-secondary students is a serious issue with critical implications. These findings add to the growing argument that Canadian financial support for post-secondary students is inadequate for the maintenance of food security during university. Future strategies must address the root financial causes of food insecurity among students in order to create effective, long-lasting change.