The OSAP diet and the student lifestyle -

The OSAP diet and the student lifestyle

Just how well should students expect to live while in school?


Okay, I’ll be the one to say it. I have no problem at all with the “OSAP Diet” as exposed by the Toronto Star. Apparently students funding their studies entirely on government loans are expected to survive on $7.50/day for food. And my reaction, mainly, is a big “so what?”

Related: Budgeting for the real world

First, let’s get the obvious (and somewhat spurious) argument out of the way. Social assistance in Ontario–still generally thought of as “welfare”–will provide $221/month to a single adult for all personal needs after housing costs. So this number includes food, clothing, hygiene products, transportation, etc. If that’s $3-4/day for food they’re lucky–and this ignores the fact that most welfare recipients need to dig into their $221 just to cover rent shortfall.

This is a spurious argument because I would never defend welfare as a livable income–not for anyone. Pointing out that some other group of people is being starved out of existence doesn’t prove that students are getting a fair deal simply because they receive more. But I am somewhat surprised that the “OSAP Diet” is a front page news item when the “Welfare Famine” is not. If educated, presumably competent young people can’t feed themselves on $7.50/day, then honestly, what do we think is happening to the people who rely entirely on public assistance? Do we even care?

Second, let’s agree that an ordinary person, with a little effort and attention, can indeed live on $7.50/day for food–assuming access to reasonable cooking facilities. Does it involve a fair amount of pasta, veggies, and bulk food preparation? Of course it does. Anyone who heads straight to the frozen food aisle and loads up on prepared meats might as well be eating out. The only thing to recommend frozen chicken fingers, really, is convenience. For what they cost by the pound you might as well get fast food. So yes, learning to shop and feed oneself on a budget is a skill, even a valuable educational experience.

There are some barriers and potential issues we should acknowledge. Not every student has access to a grocery store or to transportation. On my campus, the residence council (with support from the university) organized regular grocery van trips. That’s a service I’d want to see on any campus not within walking distance of groceries. Some students off campus simply don’t have access to reasonable cooking facilities. They get stuck in living arrangements they didn’t think enough about, and due to roommate problems, landlord problems, or other issues their “cheap” accommodation ends up costing far more than they realized. But that’s a problem of education too.

Some students have dietary restrictions that may increase their food expenses. That’s a huge problem with social assistance as well–adding to what is already a deeply unrealistic calculation–but I certainly endorse considering any unusual dietary expenses as a medical issue. I’m frankly not sure of the status of such claims within student assistance plans, and I’d be interested to learn more. There may be the kernel of a real problem lurking in this story after all. But for now, let’s stick with a typical student. That’s the thrust of this breaking news story, after all.

For all those “drop fees!” proponents who see this as further evidence that education is too expensive, I’d like to remind you that we are not remotely talking about the cost of education just now. We’re talking about the cost of living. The funding that students require to access education is still, in the majority, not required to pay for tuition but rather required to support their lives and lifestyles while they are in school. Which is fine. People need to live, after all. But if you want education to be affordable, and if you expect governments to subsidize it to that point, you need to eventually confront the question of just how much lifestyle the government has an obligation to fund for each student. And please, think carefully about that question because there isn’t an endless pot of money here. The more extravagantly you believe each student has a right to be supported, the fewer students in total can be funded.

Much as we hate to admit it, expectations around student lifestyle have become divorced from reality. Universities build extravagant residences and then charge students what it takes to recoup the cost of construction, thereby increasing debt load on graduation. Campuses supply more in the way of fast food options than general eating areas, microwaves, and other amenities for students who might pack their own food. Total cost of education is driven up not only by increasing tuition (a real problem, of itself) but also by ancillary costs for athletic facilities, expanded parking lots, and entertainment venues on campus. This is not to suggest that any investment at all in these areas is unreasonable, but how much is too much? Is there ever a point when we admit that universities have entered into the business of selling lifestyle rather than education?

This comes back around to the welfare question. Of course there’s a reason why the “OSAP Diet” is front page news while the “Welfare Famine” is not. It’s because our post-secondary students are the leaders of the future (presumably) while our welfare recipients are the problems of the present (by implication). I’m not suggesting that post-secondary students should expect to live at a bare subsistence level similar to welfare. There is, admittedly, a difference. But the larger we allow that gap to become the more we are simply entrenching a distinction between those who are entitled to government-subsidized privilege and the social underclass that is not. There isn’t a lot more basic than food. Do we really imagine that students feel hunger differently than the unemployed and impoverished? Do we think they find it harder to fill their stomachs each day?

Quite frankly, if our post-secondary students are the leaders of tomorrow then I think it’s a damn fine idea for them to know what it takes to cook a few meals, to struggle with their food budgets, and to worry just a little about making ends meet. Someday, they’re going to be making decisions about how to deal with people who are genuinely poor, and genuinely hungry, and how much we allocate to the truly needy in our society. And a little empathy, at that point, might contribute to some better social policy than we have now.


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The OSAP diet and the student lifestyle

  1. Well put Jeff. What irks me is that a lot of university students feel OSAP should cover all and they should not have to work for the four years they are away. That to me is the biggest way to solve this problem. If $7.50 a day is not enough for you to eat on, you need a part time job. And while I did not factor transportation into my response to this article, I do think it is a reasonable monthly budget for food.

    Part of the problem is that we (as a society) have gotten too used to fast, quick food and eating out — which costs more. Did I bring my lunch to school when I was on OSAP in University? Nope, but I sure wish I had. Perhaps my loan coming out would not have been pushing $40,000.

  2. Excellent article. More students should read this and learn to cook for themselves. Potatoes and rice, two wonder foods that cost pretty much nothing and can be used to stretch pretty much anything. Combine that with lentils, oatmeal (definitely not in the same bowl) and whatever else and a person can do quite well on even $5 per day. I know that I’m certainly not starving.

  3. Agreed!

    Check out the comments section at the Star; there’s not much sympathy for a student trying to get by on $7.50 per day. On a personal note I went through uni a couple of decades ago and the level of complaints from students about how unaffordable things are hasn’t changed much.

    I think the real issue is why students, or at least some of them, figure just going to university frees them to download the cost of simply existing onto society; whether food, shelter, personal care…I’m willing to contribute but I do have the expectation that they’ll pick up a significant chunk of the cost (and most of them do!)

  4. You know, the lack of sympathy would make more sense if OSAP didn’t take back any money you earn out of your loans. Sarah’s solution would make sense if OSAP allowed or encouraged students to GET part-time jobs–instead if they dare to affront the system this way they lose more money than they earn out of their loan.

    I would also point out not everyone can focus on working to support themselves (whether by paying rent or just supplementing food OSAP won’t provide for) while they’re in school, and if society actually wants people to graduate college and contribute to society maybe they should actually make it easier to do so. Instead, the system seems designed to punish poorer students who can’t afford a free ride while their parents fund their education.

    So excuse me if I don’t jump on the head-shaking tut-tut bandwagon. The fact the writer makes good points about learning to cook and budget are overshadowed by the fact students are prevented and discouraged from supplementing their income by working in the first place.

    • shaun,
      what about the people on OW [waiting to get on disability] ODSP that simply are there because they must be. uni students choose to take on a debt load of OSAP and be responsible for it. people do not choose to have a disease which prevents them from being able to fully participate in society or be limited in how they can.
      limiting or completely ELIMINATING basic nutrition from the most vulnerable people on assistance is a short term solution for padding wallets of politicians and increasing your taxes later to pay for soaring health care costs when a few vitamins and a healthier diet could prevent long term complications!!
      tommy douglas is rolling in his grave at the travesty that canada has become.

  5. Jeff, you raise some interesting rhetorical questions but you don’t seem to get at the heart of the issue. As OUSA often states, all willing and qualified students should be able to attend a post-secondary institution. I’m certainly not one of the “drop fees” proponents but I can support a group that wants to remove barriers to entry outside of merit and will. If the lack of loans is a barrier to entry and/or persistence and students face the prospect of malnourishment, I think the loan system ought to be changed.

    Many commenters have argued (although you did not) that students should simply seek employment, but this is certainly not the miracle solution they would like it to be. Besides the fact that many students on OSAP are TRYING to find work (student unemployment is at record highs) there is also that fact that OSAP will clawback funds when employment income is reported. If students drop to part-time status while they work they actually become unqualified for OSAP. Clearly the system needs reform.

    Furthermore, while I agree with you Jeff that welfare food allowances are too low there is another reason why the analogy between OSAP and welfare fails, and it seems to be overlooked by both the comments here and on the Toronto Star article:

    OSAP is a LOAN. Let the kids eat.

  6. OSAP, past a certain point, is not a loan. Everything beyond $7,000 annually (assuming a two term cycle) is forgiven – while the cap is currently over $12,000. Since we are talking about independent students, presumably housing and feeding themselves, we are well into the range of recipients who are above the $7,000 mark. In other words, every dollar of support that you care to add is a direct grant. Unless, that is, you care to raise the amount of allowable debt each year. Which plays into other very pressing issues of debt and lifestyle vs. affordable and accessible education.

    Questions of how soon and how much employment should affect loan eligibility are complex and get into some serious math. It’s true the threshold for when OSAP starts looking at a student’s individual income is relatively low. But it’s also true that’s only the point at which the student’s income begins to be counted as an available resource. It still feeds back into a further need vs. available funding formula.

    The math behind OSAP is as complex as one’s taxes. It’s tax season, so I trust we can all relate. Having a debate about the topic as a whole would span many pages and get nowhere. But the thrust of the Toronto Star article is, at least, pointed and rather insightful. What is the cut off point between a livable budget and luxuries? Because I think (or at least I hope!) we can all agree that we want to see students funded to the point where they can practically live, but we feel no need to see them funded to the point of luxury.

    Every formula needs a benchmark. How much is enough? So if we’re going to have that debate then let’s have it. What’s the real minimum amount required to live decently? And if your answer for students is different from your answer for everyone else, I’d like some further justification as to why.

    • on ODSP food budget and frankly the budget in general, everything is a luxury. in the MCSS directives it is specifically stated that having a phone, yes to call for help when you are dying on the floor, is a luxury. anything beyond tap water and ramen noodles for life is too much to be given. from what you just said jeff, your OSAP loan in a year is MORE than what an average ODSP yearly income is; $9600 for a single; which is almost double for someone on OW.

      can you even imagine surviving on that?

  7. Nice analysis, Jeff.

    I do find a clear distinction between OSAP and welfare, though. Welfare should never be comfortable, in my opinion. In fact, it should be quite uncomfortable as it is meant to be temporary. Also, there is presumably a belief that society gets a return on its investment by facilitating education with OSAP, whereas the ROI of welfare is unclear.

    Any general formula, such as the one used to determine OSAP, will have problems and it doesn’t take many anecdotal problems to justify a newspaper story. I am OK with problems. If there were no problems at all, I’d say we were probably spending too much on the solution (i.e. 80/20 rule).

    And, we do also hear complaints from students about massive debts upon graduation. How would increasing the amount of OSAP extended be of use in this regard?

    How do you fix the cost of living? It is subject to market forces, as it should be.

    The only interesting point I found in the Star article is that the ceiling hadn’t been lifted for 4 years. Of course, if you’re going to set hard limits like these then they should keep pace with inflation. But so should the forgiveness thresholds.

    Well, maybe there was one more interesting point: what the hell is a student of any description doing spending $4.50 on a cup of tea? And framing the “homemade sandwich” as a symbol of virtual poverty is another problem. But I expect that of the Star: I am a subscriber and it is a never-ending airing of grievances these days.

    If you ask the Toronto Star a question like “how much is enough?” then you will either not get an answer, or you will get an unworkable one. I suspect the Toronto Star doesn’t run its own business the way it asks the government to run theirs.

  8. Griffin:

    As you said, OSAP is a loan and it is expected that it will be repaid. Merit and will are important in determining funding — having neither will decrease the chances of success and therefore increase the risk that the loan will not be repaid. But what about the prospects for employment as a result of the chosen path and therefore the probability that the loan will be repaid with fruitful employment? Any normal loan would take such issues around loan security into consideration. By weeding out the bad prospects, maybe there would be more money for the remainder.

    Also, I’m not sure that an overindulgence in things like philosophy isn’t counterproductive for society. We don’t need more people debating the notions of “truth” and “fact” ad nauseum and never reaching conclusions about anything in life, and making it difficult for those that want to. They used to be a harmless minority. If Canada is going to prosper in future, we need more people with hard skills and sound minds that can get things done.

    • mattbg,

      you do realize that there are three separate systems of ‘welfare’ right?
      EI- is the one you pay into from your paycheque that you collect when you lose your job after a certain period of time, funds you are completely entitled to because you paid them for when you run into that issue.
      OW- ontario works- picks up when your EI runs out for re-education or certification in the field you are familiar and can help you get OSAP for schooling in areas you are weak to get and attain a well paying job of current living market value. however how the program works, there is NO to LITTLE way of being able to survive physically or mentally to do what it requires in order to attain any of that. the rates have NOT been raised since 1995 for COL.
      ODSP- ontario disability support program- totally separate but considered the same. this is for people with PROVEN medical condition[s] which prevent them from being either able to work at all, or keeping a steady position.
      when you turn 65- OAS- old age security replaces ODSP and you are on CPP canada pension plan
      CPP-D canada pension plan disability- you leave work but on a benefit basis and are under 60, you have health benefits from your health plan which pays part of cost of living and medical. CPP picks up the rest.

      all around you are left in between a rock and a hard place as a second class citizen. those^ of us cannot choose a $6 coffee to study because of ambivalence or indulgence. just because someone is on assistance does NOT mean that they have no right to simple dignity of the basics of living. students are getting it far to easy.

  9. Then there’s the visuals of one of the five noting she learned to love food while travelling in Europe and enjoying the food while she was at the Van Olympics. I know her personal story may not be directly relevent to how hard it’ll be living on her OSAP but still…

  10. I think the difference is many people living on welfare are coming from impoverished backgrounds, while many students are coming from “middle class” backgrounds and where the next meal was coming from was never really an issue. Why do students feel they have to be living in luxury? I lived off extremely little as a student, but had part time jobs, worked by butt off in the summer, made coffee and food at home most of the time, etc…but many of my friends on student loans (as I was too) ate out every day, shopped, drove cars, etc then complained about never having money. Yes–it sucks to be “poor” in school–but when did school start becoming a time of luxury living? Having to budget to survive in school sets you up for entering the real world, where yes, you can afford to eat out a bit more, but you are more capable of packing a lunch, drinking mediocre office coffee, etc… The girl featured in the Toronto Star article was complaining because she couldn’t afford a $5 drink at Starbucks on the 7.50 a day diet..well suck it up princess..go buy a box of tea for 3.00, some milk for 2.00. I work two jobs and make a decent salary and I rarely spend 5.00 on a cup of tea!

    I think what bothers me about the original article (AND MANY student arguments like this!) is that being in university is somehow equated with a miserable experience of being poor..I don’t think students understand fully that university is a privelege in most of the world and being a “poor student” is not the same experience as living on welfare or being impoverished in other ways…Do I think education is too expensive? Yes..But I also think students need more help with learning how to live with necessities, and maybe learn to live without IPhones and brand new cars and prepackaged food for every meal…

  11. $7.50/day x 30days/month = $225/month. My husband and I live on $450/month for groceries, and that includes factoring in having family over for dinner (including his student sister and her boyfriend). As a student, even living in Toronto, I lived on <$200/month for groceries. I have NEVER purchased a cup of tea for $4.50.

    $7.50/day is not POVERTY. These people are not highlighting a problem, stop whining and go cook dinner – from inexpensive healthy ingredients.

  12. While I do support the use of math in this answer, Erika, you’ve forgotten that it’s not 7.50 per day for groceries. It’s $7.50 per day for life costs after rent. If your in need of underwear that month, you need medication that is not covered by your insurance company, or your rent is more than average, then you’re taking money out of that pool (and out of your mouth).

    While I agree that $4.5 dollars for a cup of tea is outrageous, universities don’t make it much easier for their on-campus students with price jacks of immense proportions. At my local university a box of corn flakes was singing around the tune of $6 while the grocery across town was priced at $3.5. Besides the fact that the university is a business, a $4.5 dollar cup of coffee, doesn’t surprise me.

  13. To clarify, it actually is $7.50/day for food. That’s the entire point of the exercise. OSAP allows for other costs elsewhere.

  14. There’s absolutely no reason why healthy eating should cost the earth. Education, fast food and the illusion that we’re all so busy are the main reasons why people do not eat properly.

  15. I’m a mature student who quit a full time job in order to go back to school. The total OSAP funding I’m entitled to is actually $60 less per week than what I was living on while employed, so luxuries such as cable and the occasional fancy coffee and meal out will be cut from my budget. In order to pursue my studies, I consider this to be a worthwhile sacrifice.

    Eating healthy on a budget is actually quite simple. Pasta, beans, rice, in-season vegetables and fruits, and frozen vegetables are the way to go. If meat is too expensive, try tofu, which is in the $1-2 price range. Another plus of a healthy diet based on the foods above is that you don’t pay tax on these healthy food purchases.

  16. I think anyone persuing an education that has osap should be thankful. I am a status indian and i receive funding from my band every month. These funds come for the government of canada. i only receive $775 a month, which I deserve and am well entitled to. In 10, or even 5 years First Nations people may not have access to these funds. I think a wise solution to this problems is TO BUY GROCERIES.. i usually spend 130 dollars a month on groceries..and the healthiest foods; vegetables, fruit, lunchmeat is always cheapest

  17. Excellent article and good points

    Some University students do struggle, as do welfare recipients.
    I wonder how much thought is actually put into some of the comments made here about making it tough for people on welfare.
    Why do people feel the need to attack, hate, or resent people who are in need of economic assistance…? I just the programming is akin to cults and people are programmed to accept this as the norm.
    If you keep people jumping through the hoops to receive benefits, semi-starvation diets and constant flight or fight… can they move forward to improve the quality of their life by obtaining employment or higher education?
    Stress levels are kept high and the toxic mindset of the public ensures employment in the social sector for generations to come.

  18. The point being overlooked here, is that for students, the difference is that after a few years of scrimping and going without decent food and needs, you can come out of it with qualifications to imrpove your lot, and result in better provision in your life. A person subsisting on ODSP like myself, have no hope of this happening. A few years of deprivation will have no lasting effects on health and well being, but a lifetime of poor nutrition and lack of necessities WILL. Those of us who are disabled do not have a choice to better this situation, and as an example, my food budget allows for 25.00 per week for food, half that of a student supposedly living in dire straits. At least there IS an end to their poverty. Students would do well to learn to cook and to make their dollars stretch. Their parents would have been doing them a great service by teaching them these things all along. I know I can only access the food bank 4 times a year. How about students?