Image courtesy of cbc.ca
Image courtesy of cbc.ca

By: Elyse Cottrell

Whether an example of collective consciousness, or simply synchronicity, sustainability, the idea of creating an environment that meets the current needs of society while supporting healthy communities of current and future generations, seems to be at the forefront at UPEI the start of this school year, and it’s not just the new Engineering building. Students and various departments at UPEI have a number of sustainability initiatives set to go this school year, with a focus on the high cost of being a student, and the issues that cause difficulty in being able to afford things, such as food and clothing.

Interest groups have highlighted the disproportionate increase in tuition fees compared to minimum wage increases, and the struggle for students to survive on loans and part time work. CIBC recently reported that about half of students will approach their parents for money before the end of the school year.  What about students whose parents are not in a position to help them financially or students who only have themselves to rely on for financial support? UPEI Community members are looking for ways to help ensure all students are fed and clothed.

Mitchell Crouse is a Psychology Honours student working with Dr. Michael Arfken. Their thesis project is examining horticultural therapy in a university environment.  In his Honours proposal, Mitchell says “I believe many students lack a solid connection to nature, while others lose their connection to the natural world due to living in an urban environment. Horticulture therapy may be an effective strategy in revitalizing this connection and promoting student well-being.”  Mitchell will be using Participatory Action Research, a community based form of research, in which participants are considered co-researchers, that emphasizes the importance of making social changes to better the community.  He will be interviewing students and community members regarding their gardening and nature experiences.  Mitchell explains “this project will ultimately lay the groundwork for a greenhouse and gardening area to be constructed on the University of Prince Edward Island campus. These plans will be created as a community effort, encompassing several faculties and hinging on cooperation and participation.”

In addition to providing ways to deal with stress, a campus garden at UPEI would do wonders for issues of food security, which is an additional source of stress for students. It could provide produce to the Campus Food Bank, which often relies on dry goods donations and could eventually assist other projects that are getting off the ground this semester. The initiative would also help build community on campus by bringing multiple faculties  together.

A new group on campus this semester is the Panther Pantry Food Collective.  Their mandate on Facebook states “We’re a group of students working to alleviate student hunger by providing healthy alternatives to food monopolies on campus!”  When asked what inspired her to start this initiative, Claire Byrne said that a friend of hers who attends Concordia University in Montreal helps out at People’s Potato.  People’s Potato provides free (vegan) meals daily to Concordia community members and is collectively run.  Her friend also volunteered at The Garden Spot at Carleton University, which provides healthy meals to students on a pay what you can basis several times a week.   Claire wants to see the same kind of thing happen at UPEI and also sees it as a way to build community on campus by gathering like-minded people with the goal of creating a healthier campus. When asked what the goals of the PPFC were for the year, Claire said “the biggest goal is to highlight the problem of food insecurity on university campuses… students can’t study if their mind is focused on their hunger or when they’ll get their next pay cheque. We’re also planning on having a referendum coming up so that next semester we could have a levee that would give us some finances to work with so we can operate better”.  They’re also looking to distribute surveys in the future to get a better idea of food insecurity at UPEI.   If you’d like to get involved, you can check out the Panther Pantry Food Collective on Facebook.

The Graduate Students’ Association is also focusing on sustainability this year, with their focus being on clothing.  On September 29th from 11am to 2pm in MacMillan Hall, the GSA is hosting a Clothing Swap that is “family friendly” and “for all body sizes” and “all genders”.  1st year MSc student Hannah Gehrels is the conceptualizer of this event. She has organized clothing swaps in the past, both in high school and during her undergrad in B.C.  When asked why she wanted to organize one here, Hannah said “Clothing swaps are a win-win-win. They promote community, are environmentally-friendly (save the energy it costs to create new clothes and ship them around the world), socially-sustainable (not buying directly from companies that use child-labour, etc), they help out those who are low of cash (ie: students), and makes everyone feel good.”   There are boxes in the Student Centre, Chaplaincy Centre and Duffy for you to donate clothes, or you can bring them the day of the event (or get in touch with Hannah).  This is a great way to clean out your closet, and/or get some new clothes for free.

The UPEI community has also recently received two Health and Wellness Grants, for food security projects, from the PEI Government. Famous for their free chili lunches during exam times, which ensure students get a hearty and nutritious meal while studying, the Chaplaincy Centre received a Wellness grant that will allow them to offer a free soup lunch once a month to the UPEI community.  Sister Sue says “hungry students don’t succeed”, and this will give students an opportunity to have a nutritious meal, and learn more about the services offered at the Chaplaincy Centre.  Many students are unaware that UPEI has a Campus Food Bank, which is housed in the Chaplaincy Centre. It is run differently than the local food bank in that you don’t need to provide any information on yourself, and you can visit as often as you need.  Sister Sue will be working with Inge Dorsey’s Leadership class to make Soup for the Soul successful.  Stay tuned for more information on the program.

The UPEISU also received a Health and Wellness Grant, and will be operating a Community Kitchen once a month, in the Chaplaincy Centre, where students, faculty and staff will get together to cook a nutritious, cost effective meal that they will enjoy together.  The details for this endeavor are still being worked out as, in light of other initiatives on campus, the organizers are hoping to work with other groups. It will be starting in early October.

While it may seem like a year full of free stuff, it’s important to remember the reasons why they need to exist. While tuition at UPEI may be some of the cheapest in the country, the cost of living here is not. Student debt is at an all time high, and restrictions on how much a student’s parents can make, or how much a student can work, often force students to survive below the poverty line… and have to pay some of that money back eventually.  The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, or CASA (you pay $4/year of your tuition to this group) is advocating for the removal of parental income levels, and in-study student income from the needs assessment process. These two changes alone would benefit students by allowing them access to grants and loans they need, and will also prevent clawbacks on loans when students make “over the amount” that the government thinks they should make in a semester. Maybe something to keep in mind when voting in the federal election next month.  Until then, feel free to get involved and make UPEI a happier, healthier, more sustainable place for everyone.