Food is subjective. Every U of T college has different types of food and meal plans, so every student’s experience with meal plans also differs. However, there seems to be a fairly common and recurring cycle of mutual experiences that ring in the chamber of r/uoft and real life student conversations under the outcry: “How am I going to spend all this money?”

Unfortunately, this isn’t some hypothetically fantastical dilemma of being dumped with a great sum of lottery winnings. Rather, it is an emblem of the significant pressure that U of T students living in residence take on in the face of compulsory meal plans that force higher prices and even higher food consumption. 

If we are paying so much, we might as well get a bang for our buck — but the horror stories of U of T colleges’ dining hall food are manifold. Under this light, the meal plan prices seem especially disproportionately overpriced. Despite telling myself that I can rightfully demand food of better quality and price accessibility, I constantly fall into the pattern of reassuring myself and settling with the idea that it really isn’t that bad. 

However, while I’m able to refuse to eat from U of T’s dining halls, other students may not have the same financial liberties — since school dining halls should technically be the most affordable and accessible spaces for quality food. Nevertheless, no student should be forced to swallow the bitter pill of overpriced bad food without complaint. U of T and its affiliated colleges can afford to lower the costs and increase the quality of a basic necessity like food for their student residents. 

Miss a meal, lose a bill 

Throughout my first year of living at the Trinity College residence, one of the concerns that preoccupied the minds of my friends and me was that we were so far from finishing our meal plans. While all of my friends and I had selected the “light” meal plan — which requires a payment of $6,315 as the cheapest option — we still struggled to use up the prepaid meal plan money. 

The reason for this scramble to spend it all comes from Trinity College’s refusal to refund any unused meal plan money or have it remain in our accounts. The Trinity College Residence Meal Plan is divided into two: Base Dollars and Flex Dollars. The former is used for most of the dining hall food purchases and the latter for snacks and grocery items.

For the 2022–2023 academic year, Trinity College converted only a maximum of $500 unused Base Dollars from the previous year to Flex for students to use. While it seems reasonable at first glance — with the college writing how it was “pleased to share” the news in an email — Base Dollars provide a 15 per cent discount on posted prices, while Flex Dollars do not. Base Dollars are also HST exempt, while Flex Dollars are not. In accordance, students inevitably pay more for less meals because Trinity College simply would not refund or keep the unused Base Dollars that students paid for.

However, this is not unique to Trinity College. Even a quick search on r/uoft would result in a myriad of posts and comments from frustrated students of different associated colleges who have exceedingly high meal plan dollars remaining on their accounts – despite choosing the lightest plan. Ana Tarc, a second-year student who lived in Victoria College residence in her first year with the smallest meal plan, tells me that she and some of her friends each had over $1,000 left from their meal plans that went to waste — or back to U of T. Lucy Borbash, a second-year at University College, also had more than $1,000 slip out of their pockets just like that. 

While acknowledging that the benefits of meal plans include accessibility and convenience, Tarc points out a major flaw: U of T schedules lectures that span from 6:00–8:00 pm in the evening while closing its dining halls at overlapping times. Under the current declining balance system of Trinity, Victoria, University, and New College, students like Tarc, Borbash, and I are literally losing money every time we miss a meal, and this is wrong.

In addition, the aforementioned colleges also place limits on where the paid meal plan money can be used on campus. While the exemplary New College requires a meal plan, that plan covers purchases at retail outlets across campus, and its cheapest plan is still $650 cheaper than that of Trinity College. Trinity is one of the colleges that does not allow the use of meal plan dollars at anywhere other than Trinity-associated dining spaces. To Borbash, using up their University College meal plan money would not be a big deal if only they were not restricted from using it in retail outlets like Starbucks or Second Cup within U of T buildings as a U of T student. In their words, it simply “does not make sense.” 

Increased transparency for the key to students’ hearts

U of T’s associated colleges’ food services are already equipped with the tool that will help them become more accessible, equitable, and delicious: student input. Jared Madarang, a first-year at St. Michael’s College, relayed to me how satisfied he was when his dining hall conducted a survey between the academic semesters, which resulted in a significantly improved set of menus and desserts. Under his college’s “all you care to eat” meal plan, Madarang can swipe his card to access the dining hall’s buffet of food stations and he labels himself as an “avid supporter” of the meal plan and residency life at St. Michael’s College — all because of the incredible improvement of the college’s food. 

I don’t deny that colleges are trying to seek feedback: Trinity College food services’ staff-managed Instagram account has a linked student feedback form in its bio. The actual discussions, however, can only start after forms are submitted. Students deserve to see the whole picture: what sort of feedback is submitted by the majority of students, how has the feedback been applied to recent menus and services, and are there any pressing food safety issues that students must be aware of? Students must hear from the colleges themselves. 

Food is important. Our need to take care of our most fundamental needs as humans should not be trampled on by U of T as part of a bigger ploy to simply grab more cash. Most importantly, U of T and its associated colleges can most definitely afford to improve food quality, regulate meal plan prices, and maintain transparency all the while; the extraordinary endowment of a single U of T college like Victoria College is comparable to that of an entire university institution like the University of Waterloo. So, U of T, give us good food and our money back, because you will be fine either way. 

Eleanor Park is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and religion. She is The Varsity’s associate comment editor.