At the start of the fall 2023 term, the New College and Chestnut Residence dining halls changed pricing for some food items — including those from the salad bar, entrée, pizza, and self-serve pasta stations — from an a la carte system, where students could purchase individual food items at set prices, to a pay-by-weight (PBW) system. Stations that operate under the PBW system charge diners based on the weight of their meals, which cashiers measure using scales at the checkout station. 

The Varsity found that Food Services at the University of Toronto, which manages both New College and Chestnut dining halls, did not publicly announce the changes on its website, on social media platforms, or in contracts with residents before the fall 2023 term started. 

Food Services has stated that the change will increase student choice. However, students have raised concerns about how food affordability under the new system may have health repercussions for students who live or dine in these residences. In interviews with The Varsity, students discussed how the PBW system makes them feel forced to limit their food intake and eat less nutritious food. 

These sentiments echo criticism from fall 2020, when Food Services last tried to implement a PBW system in some parts of both New College and Chestnut Residence dining halls. At the time, the proposed system led students to organize a dining hall boycott, and Food Services reversed its decision to charge by weight. 

The nutritional impacts of pay-by-weight

According to the Meal Plan Calculator on Food Services’ website, a student with the $6,070 Meal Plan B — which Food Services describes as adequate for students with “average appetites” who stay on campus most weekends — that did not eat dining hall meals during the university’s holiday closure or reading weeks must spend an average of $27.59 or less to remain within their budget.

The Varsity interviewed 19 students on their experiences with the Chestnut Residence and New College dining halls. In those interviews, 15 students shared the prices of meals they had eaten in the past day. Based on the prices they shared, students paid $15 on average for a single meal — a total of $45 per day if they wanted to eat three comparable meals. 

Residents also discussed how they limited their food intake, skipped meals, and opted for cheaper, unhealthier options to preserve their meal plan balances for the rest of the school year.

William Gomez, a first-year engineering student, estimated that he had lost at least five pounds in the three to four weeks since moving into Chestnut Residence because he had been “eating less” to ensure that his meal plan lasts for two semesters. Eight Chestnut students that The Varsity interviewed said they regularly skip meals or reduce their portion size due to residence hall food prices.

When asked about the PBW model’s impact on student finances and nutrition, Anne Macdonald, the university’s assistant vice-president of spaces & experiences, wrote to The Varsity, “All of our dining locations continue to provide a variety of affordable, healthy, and nutritious options for students to choose from.”

David Chen, a first-year Rotman Commerce student living in New College, noted that, despite being on the largest available New College meal plan, he still limits his starch and protein intake and considers vegetables a “luxury.” 

In 2021, Food Services commissioned a report from Envision Strategies, a private consulting firm, about New College and Chestnut Residence’s dining programs — including their menu offerings, pricing, sustainability, and community engagement. 

In the report, Envision Strategies found that students felt limited to a $21–25 daily budget because they worried they would run out of meal plan money before the semester ended, which hindered them from eating healthy and balanced meals. 

Communication gaps between administration and students

Among the students interviewed for the article, seven said that they learned about the new payment system through word of mouth from dons, upper-year residents, family members, and friends. When asked how they had learned about the changes to the dining hall, none of the students The Varsity interviewed said it was because U of T had informed them.

Macdonald commented on how the university was communicating with students about new changes to the dining hall: “We are communicating the expanded pay-by-weight system to students by placing signs at the dining halls, launching a social media campaign, and offering more resources and information on our website. We continually seek feedback from our students to refine our offerings and ensure that the dining options we provide reflect their needs.”

On September 19, 2023, Food Services posted a press release on its web page titled “The choice is yours,” that announced the PBW system.

Looking through press releases on Food Services’ website, its social media pages, and financial statements from the administration’s budget report on residential services, The Varsity couldn’t find any evidence that Food Services publicly announced these changes prior to the beginning of the fall semester. 

Additionally, The Varsity couldn’t find any mention of these changes in the New College Residency or Chestnut Residence occupancy agreements, which outline residence policies. 

Student choice 

“[The pay-by-weight] model also better accommodates students with diverse eating habits, dietary and cultural preferences, and food allergies,” wrote Macdonald. 

Food Services’ press release also argues that the PBW model increases students’ choice. “You get to customise your meal according to your habits… just pick what serves you best!”

The press release claimed that the PBW system helped address the requests students raised during student-led feedback sessions led by Food Services and the Innovation Hub — a student-led organization that collaborates with U of T to research how it can improve student experiences — in fall 2022. The Innovation Hub’s report featured several stages of feedback sessions and “co-creation events” that included dining hall staff and Chestnut Residence students. However, the report noted low student turnout, with only three students attending the initial feedback session. 

Mike Lawler, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Geography and a former don at Chestnut Residence, told The Varsity that the sessions he attended didn’t discuss the PBW system.

“What Food Services is doing is using a single report that was commissioned by them… to say that students want choice [and] ergo, they want to have this kind of pay-by-weight option,” he said. “I think it paints an incorrect picture as to what students actually want.” 

A history of criticism and controversy

In September 2020, students and dons at the New College and Chestnut dining halls criticized the university after Food Services changed the dining halls’ payment method from an All You Care to Eat style — where students could swipe their TCard to have unlimited access to food during their visit to the dining hall — to a declining balance model that requires diners to pay for each item. Alongside this new declining-balance system, certain food stations adopted a PBW model.

Many dons and students highlighted how the new system limited student choice and didn’t allow most students, particularly those who need more calories, to eat enough while staying within budget. In November 2020, dons and students boycotted the New College dining hall. In an interview with Lawler at the time, he said that the dons intended to “send a clear message” about the lack of affordable food to staff and other students.

Colin Porter, who served as the executive director food and beverage services & campus events at the time, wrote to The Varsity in 2020 that a primary reason Food Services switched to the declining balance model was because COVID-19 restrictions prohibited buffet-style food service. 

However, the meal plans required to live in Chestnut and New College residences still use a declining balance model, despite the end of all provincial COVID-19 restrictions in April 2022. 

A year after Food Services implemented the declining balance system, the 2021 Envision Strategies report noted students’ “frustration” with the PBW system that U of T had recently removed from the Chestnut and New College dining halls’ salad bars, alongside general dissatisfaction about the new declining-balance model.