Toronto university's 'free store' helps students weather affordability crisis in Canada

A free store at TMU is giving away everything from school supplies to TVs to students in need.

The financial burdens of students attending Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) are being lightened after the school's sustainability office reintroduced the 'Free Store' to start the fall semester amid the ongoing affordability crisis sweeping the nation.

Stocked with donations collected over a two-week period, students were not only able to stock up on back-to-school basics, but claim unique treasures as well, like a turquoise mini fridge, some vintage bar stools and even a Darth Vader alarm clock.

"With the cost of living in Toronto so high, we wanted to alleviate some of the financial burden so students are able to focus on what matters — their studies, their work and their wellbeing," Sharmilla Raj said, who works at the school's sustainability office, which hosted the event.

The concept of a free store was brought to life after seeing success with TMU’s annual donation drive, Eco-Move Out. This led the sustainability office to launch the school's first-ever free store in 2022.

"We had such an overwhelming response that we decided to bring it back this year again" Raj said.

The Free Store made a big impact, with 4,161 students coming through the door picking up free items with a collective value of over $50,000.

This year, students who wanted to utilize the Free Store were given a ticket, and when their turn was called, were greeted by student volunteers who went over a basic ground rules. Students were then given a two-item limit, with the exception of certain items which were donated in abundance. The store was set up to promote an ambient atmosphere with jazz music heard playing over the speakers.

"We're really just trying to create a very, very peaceful environment for students to get the things that they need," Raj said.

The success of the free store was evident in the long queues of hopeful students waiting their turn to enter the store.

Students lined up outside Toronto Metropolitan University's free store
Students lined up outside Toronto Metropolitan University's free store

Raj hoped this year's store would be more successful than last given the increase in awareness from students' word-of-mouth, and increased support from the community.

“We've observed students who selected items from the initial free store and then, upon leaving the residence, donated those items back this year, allowing other students to enjoy them," Raj said. "We are really starting to see a sharing community mentality begin to grow, and that is one of our goals."

The sustainability office's aim with hosting the free store again this year was to help students who come to campus — many of whom are being introduced to independent living for the first time — get set up for success.

"We want students to take away a message of mindful consumption and responsible end-of-life disposal, and the free store embodies key concepts of sustainable living." Raj said.

As former students and community donate items they no longer need, waste is diverted from the landfills. Raj estimates over 5,600 pounds worth of items were diverted from Toronto landfills last year thanks to the Free Store.

As of the latest update, the 2023 Free Store has helped 1,671 students over seven days, with 47,007 items rehomed and 2,215 pounds diverted from Toronto landfills.