Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

The Food Insecure Student (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Nil Alt

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

untitled3During my ethnographic project at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) food bank, one of the questions about ‘student hunger/student food insecurity’ that I kept coming back to was why there was not much academic work or overt public discussion on these phenomena. This paucity coupled with the recurrent brushing-off of my questions by the community food groups, the union or even the University-Rosedale council candidates compelled me to question whether the university campus was the relevant scale to look for political action on student food insecurity. In other words, I was doubting whether conceptualizing food insecurity as a disparate phenomenon that exists within the confines of a university campus was reasonable. After all, my observations at the UTSU food bank clearly demonstrated that the students who experienced food insecurity were not just any student. In addition to being a student, these people were also First Nations, workers of minimum wage jobs, immigrants in the making or people with disabilities and marginalized identities. Therefore, was singling out students and trying to chase a political thread solely on campus food insecurity a valid approach? To get at this question, I first needed to explore how the spatial and temporal contours of student life at U of T was somehow making this problem appear different from hunger more generally. I wanted to understand how the university student identity was imagined and how that imaginary was universalized despite its mismatch with the actual profile of the food bank user.

Students as ‘kids’ and the ‘transient’ nature of studentship

Among the reasons as to why recognition of university hunger has been slow to develop, some studies mention the perception of university students as being a privileged and financially-supported individuals (Low, 2018, p.4 ). However, in today’s global universities such as the University of Toronto (U of T), it is hard to argue for a uniform student body, hence an assumed uniform condition of privilege. Moreover, how the university figures in the public discourse as the hearth of intellectualism and mere knowledge production has much to catch up with the relatively new realities. As Read (2009) reminds us the cuts in funding at public universities and the rise of tuition have not only rendered “the funding of education from a public good to a private good”, they have also changed the student experience dramatically (p. 152).

untitled4In my conversation with the UTSU’s membership services coordinator who is in charge of the campus food bank, she brought up a similar perception by giving an example from her own family. Her “kids” were in university and she was the one paying all their bills. In this common imaginary, students are viewed as kids who could not / did not pay their own bills for the time being since they are in a transitory life stage. It is thought that one day when they grow up, they will graduate, get jobs and have their bright futures. This constant emphasis on ‘future’ signals how students are “viewed predominately not as individuals in their own right, but as future adults, citizens and workers” (Evans, 2008, p.1673). Such differentiation of childhood and adulthood serves to construct responsibility and independence as markers of adulthood. Since students are not quite seen as adults yet, their plight can be overlooked as a transitory experience.

Different types of students converge at the food bank

I observed incidents at the food bank, flagging a similar conception of the imagined student. Once the food bank supervisor was telling another volunteer how he had a serious sports injury that kept him from working out and how that caused him to lose muscle mass. The volunteer advised him to ‘eat better’. In response, the supervisor, a young man in his mid 20s who lived with his family, joked about how he could not eat better because his mom stopped cooking and so he ended up at the foodbank.

The joke is premised on the same assumption that students are kids, who still lived in the loving and protecting environments of their homes. However, what I found counter-intuitive in this response was that the supervisor himself knew well that the food bank had a user profile that was far from the privileged and financially-supported student stereotype. Yet still they revoked that totalizing image.

Both incidents resonate with Jason Read’s (2009) analysis that the university student has conventionally been depicted as imbursed in an intellectual lifestyle that is “free from work and other demands” (p.151). But times have changed. Contrasting the conventional conception of the North American student with the current day realities of student life, Read (2009) charges that “the cut in funding to state universities and the rise of tuition” not only undermined the idea of the university as a public good, but also altered “how education is lived and experienced” (p.152). The neoliberal university has since produced student subjects who have to work on and off-campus jobs and is forced to live at home. This profile significantly differs from that of the imagined university student who purportedly enjoys a liminal life stage between childhood and adulthood. On the contrary, the neoliberal mode of government that renders people as “human capital” is embodied in the university context by the self-governing, entrepreneurial student who considers extracurricular activities as possible CV-enhancers, an investment in one’s human capital.

Therefore, as a unique space where the CV-building volunteers and the food insecure food bank users come together, the campus food bank assemblage emerges as a dense site where different student subjectivities converge.  This difference makes collective politics harder to manifest in the space of the UTSU food bank.

Works cited:

Low, H. T. (2018). Determinants of Food Insecurity within University Student Populations: Results of a College Food Pantry Survey. Unpublished Honors Thesis.

Read, J. (2009). University experience: Neoliberalism against the commons. Toward a global autonomous university: Cognitive labor, the production of knowledge, and exodus from the education factory, 151-153.


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