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Opinion: It’s time to reform meal plans at U of T

Meal plans do not suit the needs of all students
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Diet and appetite can vary significantly between students. RUSABA ALAM/THE VARSITY
Diet and appetite can vary significantly between students. RUSABA ALAM/THE VARSITY

U of T’s dining halls have often been a highly debated topic among students for various reasons, including food quality, pricing, and dining hall opening and closing times. In particular, the limited options and high cost of the meal plans at Chestnut Residence and New College are evident of the inadequate meal plan system at U of T.

Chestnut Residence and New College offer their residents four options for meal plans. The costs of these plans range from $5,500 to $6,550, and they are intended to accommodate students with varying appetites and schedules. At the end of the academic year, any leftover meal plan dollars are converted into TBucks rather than being refunded directly to the student. 

However, there is a certain limit to the amount that can be carried over to the next year. As a consequence, students with large amounts of residence dollars left over at the end of the year are forced to scramble to spend until they reach this limited amount so that they do not lose money through their meal plan. Afterward, they can only use their TBucks as payment for on-campus food, vending machines, printing, photocopying, and approved off-campus merchants.

I stayed in Chestnut Residence last semester, and while some people complained about the struggle of getting three hearty meals a day because of the high prices, my experience was quite the opposite. As someone with a light appetite who enjoys eating meals out every now and then, I picked the cheapest meal plan. Still, I spent my last two weeks scrambling to stock up on snacks I didn’t want and to buy food for others so that I could drain my residence dollars. And I definitely wasn’t alone in this, as I knew a few friends in similar situations. 

To be fair, the fact that I moved several weeks into the semester due to travel restrictions and quarantine could account for my large amount of remaining residence dollars. The many unexpected circumstances that international students encountered due to COVID-19 is another factor that residences should account for in the design of meal plans.  

This system is inherently unreasonable. While students need to pay some funds upfront to maintain the meal plan system at U of T, they should not have to waste so much money on an ineffective meal plan. 

The reality is that generalizing the amount of food that students consume into four categories is unrealistic, because appetite and eating patterns vary significantly between different students. Additionally, having students pay up front for their meal plan is unfair because an individual student’s eating patterns have the potential to change greatly during the school year. 

Each student’s choice of meal in the dining hall also affects the cost of their meal plan — getting the daily entrée is cheaper than getting something from the grill station or picking up some sushi. Furthermore, it’s important to take students’ schedules into consideration, because some students enjoy eating out significantly more or spend most weekends away. What’s more, the dining hall schedule may not complement the student’s schedule, and students may often find themselves ordering food off campus.  

Thus, the meal plan system at U of T provides benefits to very few students. If we also consider food preferences, such as specific diets that are not catered to by the dining halls at U of T — vegan and kosher diets, for example — then the problem of having to spend money on meal plans becomes an even bigger issue. 

What’s worse is that costly meal plans only add to the financial burden faced by many students. Although having meal plans for students is a very practical concept, the truth is that students should have more flexibility with the meal plans offered by U of T.

Instead of the current meal plan system, students should pay a small initial fee and be able to refill their residence dollars during the course of the academic year. This would decrease the cost of meal plans and allow students to refill money according to their food preferences and schedule. 

Transitioning between these two systems should be relatively simple, as there is already a system in place to add funds to your meal plan if you run out of residence dollars. This alternate system also accounts for the base level costs required to keep the dining hall running because it requires that students pay a small initial fee. However, unlike the system currently in place, this one would not be as much of a financial burden on students. 

Shreya Vanwari is a second-year psychology student at Woodsworth College.