Being away from home: International Students and their food concerns
Written by Martha Cecilia Cedeno
International Students in Canada pay in tuition almost 6 times the amount that domestic students pay. Coming to Canada to study at the University of Toronto is a pursuit that comes at a high economic cost. While studying abroad might have its highs, it comes with dark moments as well.
When International Students come to Canada, they are confronted with a different society and living standards. Leaving your home country and family can have many different effects on your sense of self and safety. You do not immediately think about how food plays a role in making students feel at home. Every country has their own version of ‘comfort food.’ Comfort foods can inspire a sense of home and safety. When international students go overseas to study, they have to adopt a new relationship to food that might drastically change from how they were raised. My research is interested in university international students’ food choices. Specifically, I am interested in exploring their relationship to food in their new contexts and how this impacts the student’s life and wellbeing.
Food is an essential part of people’s identity. It connects people with their culture by reminding them of memories, places and relationships (Belasco, 2008). As international students are away from their families and country roots, I ask: how do they negotiate their identity through food?
“the Chinese food here is not really authentic…we don’t eat egg rolls or fortune cookies…” (Halina, STG).
“…all day you have to run for your classes, so we don’t have like a lot of time to spend with your friends, eating. I eat alone…” (Gloria, STG).
My findings illustrate that international students do change their food consumption habits as they complete their studies abroad. The changes they experience occur for many interrelated reasons, like new social norms, time pressure, schedule and homework management. It is part of their adaptation process to a new environment. The findings further reveal how eating has now become instrumental for the purpose of studying and productivity, which is a drastic move away from its traditional function of enjoying and maintaining family bonds.
The shifts in food consumption
Most international students, more specifically those from Asia and South America, report that they changed their food consumption habits. The major change they experienced was their lack of eating breakfast:
“… I had breakfast over there but not here…. I’m just used to it. It’s ok without breakfast…” (Taemin, UTM)
“Before I came to Canada when I was living in Korea and Japan. I ate 3 meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner every time … ‘Cause like I have to eat … dinner with my family. But in Canada, … we didn’t eat breakfast that much, I don’t know why…” (Taemin, UTM)
“…I usually have like classes in the morning so I… sometimes that I don’t eat, like my breakfast…” (Vivian, STG)
International students report these changes as being difficult at first; however, with time they got use to the food and their relation to it. Since they are so busy with their studies, food decisions become secondary to their work. They also report that food costs are expensive compared to their own country, which determines when and what they choose to eat. They find the food unsavoury, not enjoyable and even, not necessary as a result.
“I’m eating smaller meals than I’m used to eating. Smaller portions of rice, smaller portions of everything and often opt to eat another meal rather than have to eat more of the same meal than I used to before. Uh-huh, yes. And… there are times where I don’t eat a lot of vegetables.” (Carolina, UTM)
The findings also reveal that food environments on campus, like cafeterias and counters, play a major factor in what internationals students will eat. While St. George campus offers several options for food consumption, students often find the food too expensive, and as such, must choose their meals wisely.
“…it stresses me a little bit because it’s not like other things. You have to eat every day, it’s something that is a necessity. I do think that a lot of people are taking advantage of this university, because… they think that we have money, and even if you don’t have money, you have to eat every day…” (Halina, STG)
The feelings around food
Many female international students report they have loss weight due to these new patterns of consuming food. They say that they are eating less than in their own country but point to factors beyond economic ones. Specifically, they report that it is because of time troubles. Female students spend most of their time studying and do not worry much about what are they eating. However, they also say that the food and the ingredients of the food are flavourless and bland, which factors into why they choose to skip meals as well.
“I have to go to Chinatown for my food. And I still find it a little bit hard because I’m from the South. So, we like soup, like soup from the bones. So, when you go to a Western grocery store, there’s usually packaged meat, it doesn’t have the bone in it usually; unless it is specifically ribs. So, when I want to find the bones for this soup, it is hard for me to find them. And sometimes it could be hard to find the spices.” (Halina, STG)
“well… when I go back to Ecuador – I miss a lot of things about the food in Ecuador, it’s about comfort, I guess. Because I grew up in sort of this culture where food is very important, and I think it also has to do a lot with family because my family is very… I guess united, so we often got to eat and stuff like that, or eat at someone’s house and it’s about community, but it’s also about the fact that the food often reminds you of home, reminds you of being back in your country.” (Carolina, UTM)
Female students from my study seem to suffer more with the lack of food options and their access to comfort food. They reported constantly feeling homesick because they missed their “mom’s food,” which is another form of comfort food. A mother’s cooking reminds students of being at home with their family. Eating their ‘mother’s cooking,’ goes beyond simply eating for substance; it ties into their identity.
“I think it depends on how much time they lived back in their home country, how close they were to their family and how important was- how significant was the type of food that they ate. So I think food can often be associated with comfort and if you don’t feel comfortable eating the food that you have, or the food that is available to you, I would say especially this for first year or second year students who are still trying to transition into coming into Canada, it’s a lot harder to sort of focus on the things that you have to focus when there are other factors that are affecting your concentration. So, it’s hard for you to acquire cheaper food in the same amounts that you’re used to eating before, then you’re going to have a hard time adjusting to that, and therefore, you will also have a hard time sort of, trying to balance your home life, which would be- and your studies.” (Carolina, UTM)
My research provides a brief look into international students’ relationship to food. Since their primary reason for being in Canada is to study, what is available on campus greatly impacts when and what they will eat. The widely different food environments impact the options for students. STG students have far more choices, which influence the way students negotiate their food consumptions. However, STG students also report that despite greater access to different food options, they find the food unsavoury, not enjoyable and even, not necessary. Some female students reported weight loss, which could also be a symptom of some mental health issues, like depression. At UTM, students reported the lack of variety of food options. They often mentioned that they cannot find on campus their preferred foods, and they get bored with the options they have. They also say that the food does not look fresh, but they have to eat it because it is all that is available. Across both campuses, students say they find that the food is very expensive, which impacts their relationship to food and their ability to eat nutritious meals.
Martha Cecilia Cedeno, 4th-year University of Toronto Mississauga student. She majors in Sociology and Psychology, with a minor in Education. She is a devoted wife and mother of three children. Martha is a passionate advocate for social justice and economic equality. She, like other international students, misses her country a great deal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVAtiPmDlf4