How University Students Are Leading the Charge to Repair our Broken Food Systems: Part 2

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Today’s post is part of a two-part series by Kirsten Lee and  Katelyn Godin. Kirsten and Katelyn are both graduate studuents at the University of Waterloo. 

Universities have a unique opportunity to engage students in creating change towards a more environmentally sustainable and healthy food system. Just as with Meatless Mondays in Part 1 of this blog series, PUSH is an initiative that leverages the voices of student to drive change, specifically to tackle the challenge of food insecurity. Post-secondary students have a powerful voice in PUSHing for a greater focus on food and nutrition security on campus.

Presidents United to Solve Hunger (PUSH)

PUSH is a global movement that advocates for university leaders and administration to support the eradication of hunger and malnutrition. When universities sign the global PUSH mission, their campus will join a coalition of university leaders around the world in making a commitment to advocacy and leadership related to accessibility of food for all, at both the campus- and international-levels. A University of Waterloo chapter was formed by a group of undergraduate and graduate students in the fall of 2016 to advocate for this mission on their campus.

Recognizing that food insecurity and hunger are complex issues that require partnerships at varying levels, PUSH has recently collaborated with the University of Waterloo Meal Exchange Student Chapter. Meal Exchange is an organization that is championing food system change across universities to improve food security and sustainability. This collaboration was an important step in empowering students to contribute to a just and sustainable food system, both on- and off-campus. Findings from Meal Exchange’s study suggest that food insecurity is a serious issue for Canadian post-secondary students as approximately 40% of surveyed students have experienced some degree of food insecurity in the past year.

We asked the students of this collaborative group to chat about their involvement with PUSH/Meal Exchange. Here’s what they had to say:

Why are they involved with PUSH/Meal Exchange?

Students involved with PUSH/Meal Exchange were driven by the first-hand experience of witnessing their peers, friends, and themselves in situations where the availability of healthy options was limited or university culture didn’t support healthy choices. Many have seen others struggling with the transition between high school and university, where students “eat out of stress or inconvenient timing” or “do not understand how to budget”. There was an overwhelming agreement that they felt frustrated by the options available to them on campus and the affordability of these options.

Why should post-secondary institutions make food insecurity a priority?

The students agreed that food security largely impacts the overall well-being of the campus population. The post-secondary environment was not only a place to learn about a specific discipline, but also for broader personal development in learning life skills, such as preparing healthy meals on a budget. Academic institutions have an opportunity to facilitate this growth, as well as supporting groups who may need financial assistance.

What can students do? Where does the university step in?

The students expressed that food insecurity amongst students is a systemic issue driven by high food prices and tuition costs. Various initiatives, such as budgeting workshops and improving food illiteracy, are amongst their list of strategies to improve awareness and education on the topic. One student mentioned that “although workshops do not solve the root cause of student food insecurity, this is the most that can currently be done in [our] reach and we are interested in doing more with university administration”.

Is there a place for collaboration with other student groups or university staff?

Students agreed that collaboration is essential to improve the overall campus food system. While PUSH/MX focuses on empowering students to make change in improving food security on campus, overlapping goals and priorities with other groups creates a unique opportunity for resource sharing and creating a louder voice. The lack of collaboration between administration and students due to hesitancy to change is a major barrier. Food security issues require larger system-level change to the surrounding environment and greater collaboration is beneficial to address this issue.

Bringing It All Together (Meatless Mondays and PUSH)

Both Meatless Mondays and PUSH are driven by passionate students who are tackling food system challenges on the University of Waterloo campus from a bottom-up approach. The groups expressed the power of student voice when advocating for food insecurity and the promotion of sustainable food options. However, there is a need for collaboration between university administration and key working groups to leverage greater change on campus. While the challenges of the food system are vast, universities and the surrounding community are an ideal leverage point to tackle food insecurity and sustainability, given the passion for change demonstrated by our leaders of tomorrow.


I have a PhD in population health from the University of Ottawa looking at why children are sedentary, the difference between types of sedentary behaviour (as you’d expect screen time is much worse than reading a book!) and what we can do about it in Canada, and around the world. I completed my master’s at Queen’s University in kinesiology and epidemiology, and graduated from Acadia University with a double major in biology and kinesiology. I am also a Certified Exercise Physiologist with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, a Clinical Exercise Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine/National Physical Activity Society. I love to be active, especially when I get to be outside and especially when I get to explore a new city!