Food for Thought coordinator Jennifer Boggett and Reverend Gwenda Wells


Help in lean times

DANIEL McCABE | Most McGill students don't come from Westmount. They don't tool about in BMWs. And they don't dine at swanky eateries like l'Express on St. Denis.

Some live in lousy little apartments, scrape together just enough cash to buy a bus pass every month and eat Kraft dinner far more often than they should. And sometimes, when the money runs out, even a box of Kraft dinner can feel beyond their reach.

"When there's no money, it's hard to focus on your courses. The only thing you can think about is that there's no money," says one student who recently found herself in dire financial straits.

The student, who doesn't want to be identified, is getting by now, thanks to a recent loan from a relative. "It was humiliating to be in that situation. If I was turned down, I don't know what I would have done. I was down to my last 20 bucks."

"It's very hard when you're in trouble and you're feeling the pressure from not having money, to get above that. It's difficult to think clearly in a situation like that," says Judy Stymest, the director of McGill's Student Aid Office.

"Most students live in poverty while they're attending university," declares Elizabeth Carlyle, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. She points to a growing trend -- food banks on campuses.

Over 50 universities and colleges across the country have food banks or some sort of free food provision program for needy students.

You can now add McGill to the list. Food for Thought, a drop-in centre at the Yellow Door, offers emergency food support every Friday between 2 and 5 pm.

The idea was first developed by a group of students in the School of Social Work. The students, all single mothers from Little Burgundy who know what it's like to cope with tight budgets, collaborated on a class assignment that investigated whether or not a free food service for students was required at McGill.

They looked at the demand placed on a food bank set up for students at nearby Concordia University, examined the number of McGill students who require financial aid and conducted interviews with students with limited resources.

The conclusion they came to, says Karen Desmond, was that the University would be well served in having a free food service near campus.

"McGill is no longer catering to just the elite," says Desmond, a one-time welfare recipient. "You see students from lower-middle class backgrounds and low income backgrounds."

Desmond and the other students approached Reverend Gwenda Wells, head of McGill's Chaplaincy Service.

Wells lent her support to the project. Food for Thought is now open for business with Jennifer Boggett as its part-time coordinator. Provigo supplies the service with canned food and other non-perishables.

"I know there are people out there who think students don't really have it all that rough," says Boggett. "But there are all kinds of students. Students aren't just 20-year-olds receiving support from their parents. There are students who are single parents. There are students who are just barely getting by on student loans. There are students who can't turn to their parents for whatever reason."

Wells says students can't always see tough times on the horizon. She points to students from East Asia whose finances were rocked by currency crises in that part of the world last year.

"What those students had budgeted went right out the window. Suddenly, their currency was worth 60 per cent of what it was worth when they sat down to do the budgeting."

Stymest says that, unfortunately, business is booming in her office. Students are asking for greater amounts of assistance than ever before.

The increased tuition fees for out-of-province students, imposed by Quebec City, have had a major impact on the demands being made on her office, says Stymest.

When the fees first went up, McGill set aside $1 million to help students cope. The thinking was that students from outside Quebec would soon learn to factor in the additional charges and budget accordingly. So, for the second year, the money set aside to help them dropped to $365,000.

But, as it turns out, the demand for aid from out-of-province students hasn't subsided.

"I've never had to say this before, but we need to have more unrestricted bursaries to offer to our students."

Stymest's office parcelled out $2.2 million in student aid last year. About 3,000 students applied to McGill for loans or bursaries to help them out.

"You're not dealing with a group of people with highly developed budgeting skills," says Stymest of students. "You'll have students coming in from Toronto and paying much more money than they should for an apartment. They'll think they got a great deal. It would be a great deal too -- if this was Toronto."

Still, Stymest says students earn a bum rap from some for being careless and financially negligent. "Student bankruptcies and loan defaults are higher than they are for the general population, but it's still a relatively small percentage. Most students pay back their student loans. Most students are responsible."

Easy access to credit and a serious shortage of available cash can make for a volatile combination, says Stymest. "Students can get several credit cards with very little effort. We see students using credit cards to pay for groceries. The bills rack up."

The situation in Quebec is, in many respects, better than in other provinces.

"Quebec has the best student financial assistance program in the country," says Carlyle, noting that it is one of only two provinces that still give students bursaries in addition to loans.

"Students tend to graduate with lower student debt loads in Quebec," notes Stymest. Here, a graduate's debt load is about $12,000, as opposed to the $17,000 debt loads seen in other parts of the country.

The lower tuition rates in this province are another factor that makes life a little easier for Quebec students, by and large.

Stymest says bureaucracy can be a nemesis for students in need. "There are programs out there that help, but if your situation isn't 100 per cent the same as what the program was designed for, you can fall between the cracks."

Summer jobs don't make much of a dent in the costs faced by students, maintains Carlyle. The average cost of a single year in university for a full-time student in Canada, including tuition fees and living expenses, is $15,000, according to the CFS. A summer job paying minimum wage would earn a student $3,840.

There are fewer summer jobs in any case, says Carlyle. "There used to be decent summer jobs in the government, but with the big cutbacks to the civil service in recent years, a lot of them are gone."

Another problem, says Harunur Rashid, vice-president (external and government affairs) for the Post Graduate Students' Society, has been the recent cuts to granting councils -- especially to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Graduate students, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, are finding that their funding is evaporating midway through their degrees as their professors, whose own grants have been cut, can no longer support them to the same extent.

"Go to St. Denis and you'll find a lot of graduate students who've put their studies on hold, working as waitresses or bartenders," says Rashid.

Desmond has a clear understanding that she has to be careful with her budgeting.

"You just have to be strong and get through it. I can't tell my kids, 'there's nothing to eat tonight.' That just isn't an option."

McGill offers help in a number of ways. The Faculty of Religious Studies and the McGill International Students Network organize a popular winter clothing drive. McGill Chaplaincy offers free and cheap meals. McGill's work study program employs many students facing a cash crunch. Stymest's office helps coordinate a peer budgeting program whereby newer students receive advice from more experienced ones.

The Students' Society of McGill University is considering raising its fees for undergraduates -- part of the money would go to more work study jobs and part of it would go towards bursaries for needy students.

Carlyle's advice to students facing tough times is to take to the streets.

"We have to get out there and fight. Nobody is going to speak up for students except students."