Food Security: The Key to Student Self-Fulfillment

By Johanna Pokorny – Senior Research Assistant, Amal Yusuf – Data Analysis Researcher, Rosemarie Shephard – Data Analysis Researcher and Betelehem Gulilat – Lead Editor & Writer

A vending machine next to a clock on the right hand side

In Canada alone, 2 out of 5 post-secondary students experience some form of food insecurity2Food insecurity is described as inadequate and insecure access to food as a result of financial constraints3. Its prevalence within the student population is overlooked by many considering the significant implications it has on students’ livelihood, learning and overall well-being. It’s complex and interconnected with our core needs and different for each and every individual in our communities.  

While many of our projects are in direct collaboration with partners, the Food Insecurity project began during our 2019-2020 Design Thinking Experience Program (DTEP) where we support students and staff in equity-centered design thinking through hands-on projects that tackle a genuine challenge in the University of Toronto campus experience. When the team began this project in 2020, we quickly realized how complex & dynamic this topic is. We needed to ensure that we were hearing from a diverse scope of students and community members to truly understand needs in food insecurity. 

For these reasons, this project has been worked on by three different teams across the summer and fall work-study terms. This has allowed us to bring new perspectives and be flexible in exploring and understanding why student food insecurity exists within higher education. It had been a unique opportunity to combine existing research with student needs – ensuring that diverse voices and experiences drove our data. 

During these phases we have interviewed UofT students and staff about their eating and food experiences on campus, and utilized existing research to understand some of the foundations of food insecurity in communities. We also engaged with our existing data (which includes interviews from over 600 students, faculty & UofT community members). After careful analysis from our teams, we’ve discovered that eating experiences can satisfy students’ hunger and support their well-being, leading to their self-fulfillmentParticularly, when students’ basic needs are being met. We discuss this in the blog post, but it’s also further examined in our recent report: Food for Student Self-Fulfillment: Supporting Student Food Experiences 

A side profile of a face with a magnifying glass looking at an apple, a middle image of a shelf and a globe at the right

The Elements of Student Food Insecurity  

Food insecurity is tough to navigate within higher education for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there isn’t enough research targeting student populations. This already stigmatizes student food insecurity since there aren’t many studies acknowledging its existence within student campuses. Second, there are several interwoven factors that influence food barriers, which can vary from student-to-student. For instance, each student has their own unique food identity based on their individual food preferences, culture, family and finances. As a result, accessing foods is about aligning with your food identity and this is where we believe the first step to self-fulfillment begins. Achieving self-fulfillment as a student means being able to fulfill one’s ambitions and future desires. This is why understanding student self-fulfillment in relation to food experiences is important. 

By identifying & recognizing these core elements of food insecurity, we can locate the short and long-term implications food insecurity has on students’ academic success, future endeavours, health and overall well-being. 

Food for Self-Fulfillment 

In addition to finding food identity, another important insight we’ve uncovered is the difficulty of balancing food and the demands of being a student. From navigating workloads, course schedules, and class locations to managing the stress and anxiety that comes with academics – students don’t have the capacity to prioritize their ideal food options or food in its entirety. Therefore, students are left to manage balance imperfectly, which is an ongoing process of development. In a similar fashion, the lack of prioritizing food ideals prevents students from gaining food know-how. Students are eager to learn about new food locations, as well as nutritional and food preparation information on campus. However, they find it difficult to access this information whether it be in-person or online, and encourage better information-sharing. Students also recognize food literacy as a life skill they have not yet developed once moving away from home. From budgeting, grocery shopping, and cooking at home, students are interested in being equipped with these skills. This can empower students to find food options that fit their ideal needs, which can ultimately lead to self-fulfillment and contribute to their overall wellbeing.  

Inspired by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs1, a hierarchal model where basic needs must be met before meeting complex needs on top, we’ve created our own model of self-fulfillment. Starting from the bottom, ‘Finding Food Identity’, students must first meet this need before they are able to ‘Manage Balance Imperfectly’ and ‘Gain Food Know-How’ in order to ultimately reach self-fulfillment. After reflecting back on this model, we’ve come to realize just how cyclical this process may be. For instance, if students have reached the top of the hierarchy, ‘gaining food know-how’, this can lead to better eating experiences and an overall greater level of satisfaction. It’s also important to acknowledge the intersectionality of food insecurity. Although financial constraint is described as the main driver of food insecurity, the geographic location, health status and nutritional knowledge of students are also important factors to consider. 

Recipes for Success 

We’ve outlined some design principles below to inspire and support UofT members on ways to make food more accessible on campus.  

  • Removing barriers to accessing food and food knowledge 
    • Providing food navigation supports (ex.  app, online info, and campus food map) 
  • Providing opportunities for gaining food literacy 
    • Offering campus cooking classes and workshops on budgeting, shopping, and food management  
  • Involving students in food preparation and service 
    • Creating student-run food places, holding feedback sessions with staff & students, and allowing students to rate campus food options  
  • Ensuring availability of diverse food options on campus  
    • Providing healthy and fuel-intensive food options based on the varying needs of students (Ex. Studying)  
  • Offering budget-friendly food options 
    • Incorporating reward programs for food locations  
    • Advertising free food events on campus  

By applying these principles in our spaces and building a conversation & awareness around how much food insecurity impacts students, we aim to inspire others to be innovative and foster food security in our communities while also removing the stigma attached to experiencing these realities. If you’re interested in learning more about our findings, recipes for success, and how you can make a difference, click on our report below for some food for thought.  

Community Resources

There are many resources & communities that can support students in accessing food & information to support them in their journeys. Do you have any resources that would support students to ensure food security is possible for all? Email us at or link the resource in the comments!

For Food Support

  • UofT Emergency Food Bank: a joint initiative by students and staff sponsored by the UofT community. The UofT Emergency Food Bank is a contactless food bank that is safe, secure, and accessible for all UofT students.
  • Feed Ontario: a virtual network of 130 member food banks and over 1,100 affiliate hunger-relief programs and agencies across the Ontario that serves 522,000 people each year. You can find your closest Feed Ontario member food bank by searching with your postal code or address. Contactless options are available, based on location.
  • Food Banks Canada: A national organization & support a network of Provincial Associations, affiliate food banks, and food agencies that work at the community level to relieve hunger. Explore their resources, relief programs and more!

Additional Research, Insights and More

  • PROOF – Food Insecurity Policy Research: Explore a wealth of existing research on food insecurity throughout Canada to gain a deeper understanding.
  • University Affairs: As part of the building literature on food insecurity for students (before, during, and after COVID-19) – University Affairs also shares more insights and resources that many Universities are grappling with in these times.
  • UBC – Campus Food Insecurity: Explore how Universities like UBC (University of British Columbia) are addressing food insecurity and building conversations and resources for students


Provided are some additional references related to our report. Please explore our accessible report to learn about additional research & resources we utilized for this work.

1Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370-396.  

2Maynard, M. S., Meyer, S. B., Perlman, C. M., & Kirkpatrick, S. I. (2018). Experiences of food insecurity among undergraduate students: “You can’t starve yourself through school”. Canadian Journal of Higher Education/Revue canadienne d’enseignement supérieur48(2), 130-148. 

3Tarasuk V, Mitchell A. (2020). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF). Retrieved from 

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