Let’s start with the premise that young people should eat food. Not a controversial statement. I mean, ideally, we should all eat a balanced, nutritious diet, bolstered by moderate exercise and regular sleep hours. But for the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus on post-secondary students and agree that being well-fed is a core element of physical and mental health, without which the capacity to learn is diminished.
If my child ends up going to the University of Toronto to study business or management and pays $18,000 to live in residence with a meal plan, that certainly wouldn’t guarantee any future happiness or career success. But you’d think they wouldn’t go hungry. Yet that’s what some students in two U of T residences say they’re experiencing.
In 2020, the Chestnut and New College residences made big changes to their food services. As a result, says Mike Lawler — a geography PhD student and resident don at Chestnut — about 11 per cent of students were pushed into a state of food insecurity: they didn’t have adequate access to affordable and nutritious food.
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Pre-pandemic, the residences had a favourable food reputation. The meals were provided in an all-you-care-to-eat model, with plenty of healthy options. A salad/vegetable station was available all day.
Like many other aspects of our lives, that all changed in the spring of 2020.
Water fountains were removed. Bottled water, the sale of which had been banned on campus since 2011, took their place. In the fall, the all-you-care-to-eat model was converted to à la carte pricing (by weight), and students started paying through a declining-balance account. The salad bar was removed. And the healthier options, students say, increased in price, while chips, candy bars, and instant noodles proliferated.
The university says that some of these changes, such as the water, were made necessary by COVID-19. Others were part of a shift to an app-based ordering/payment system that enables students to eat at locations across campus.
“When thinking about service design,” a university spokesperson tells me, “we consider a wide array of issues, including queuing issues, speed of service, and capacity limitations.”
The students, whose needs do not appear on that list, contend that the reintroduction of bottled water was more about money than safety, and that the administration failed to consult them during the process, leaving them hungry and frustrated.
Lawler argues that the university has designed a structure that propagates food insecurity where none existed previously.
The administration’s breakdown of its meal plans (32 weeks in the school year, 19 meals a week) comes out to 608 meals per year and, depending on the plan students choose, an allotment of between $8.47 and $9.53 per meal.
That’s some creative accounting. On weekends, residences serve brunch instead of breakfast and lunch. So they count only 19 meals in a week, enabling the meal plans ($5,150 or $5,795) to theoretically go further. That makes no sense. If I’ve got $8.47 for breakfast and lunch, having only one meal available doesn’t make me less hungry for food throughout the day.
Humans, advised to eat three full meals a day, have 21 meals in a week. That works out to 672 meals in the 32-week academic year, which breaks down to a per-meal budget of $7.66 to $8.62.
While breakfast and lunch specials have been introduced and prices on items such as pizza and fries have been reduced, it’s hard to balance that budget and order balanced meals à la carte. A breakfast bagel with salmon ($9.89) and a lunch of super-food salad ($9.89) would leave me pretty pinched if I wanted even something as modest-seeming as a turkey sandwich ($8.99) and a side salad ($5.49) for dinner.
“The university created a system where food was priced outside of student budgets,” says Lawler.
The administration, however, presents these changes differently: “The shift to a [declining balance] plan does require meal plan participants to budget, and seeing prices attached to every item in the dining hall highlights the cost of food,” the spokesperson says.
I am a proponent of teaching cooking skills and financial literacy in school. But isn’t the whole idea of a meal plan that first-year post-secondary students, who have chosen not to live in an apartment where they can plan and budget their meals, are paying not to have to think about the cost of every sandwich? They’ve got enough new things (new classes, new town, new friends, new debt) filling up their bandwidth without trying to figure out how to eat full meals on a $9 budget.
Changing fee structures to mask what are effectively price increases is not a new gimmick.
As a teenager, I was worked at a movie theatre that tried something like that: selling popcorn and butter separately. We were encouraged to push customers to buy a large butter with a medium popcorn. A motivational slogan — “My butter sales will be 100%!” — stared at me from the soda dispenser. They never were. And the customers, who were not fooled by the new price structure and were outraged that their popcorn did not come with butter, were not shy about telling me what a scam it was.
Students in these residences have been similarly vocal in asking the administration to remove the sale of bottled water and the pay-per-weight system and to reinstate the all-you-care-to-eat model.
However, the university says that only 13 per cent of students used up their entire meal-plan balance this year.
“If 13 per cent of students did, in fact, run out of money, this is an issue which the administration has directly created through introducing a model which values profits over access to affordable food,” says Lawler. “How many students topped up their accounts or let their money run out and sought cheaper food elsewhere? Even if a student didn't formally run out of food, they may have been subsidizing their dining-hall purchases with outside food. Dons noted a high number of takeout orders from cheaper restaurants, a tactic which students were likely using because of fatigue with the food, high prices, and poor quality.”
The one thing that’s consistent in this back and forth is the inconsistency and disconnect between students and the administration.
Joshna Maharaj, a chef who has overseen food-service changes at such institutions as Ryerson University and Scarborough Hospital, was asked to consult on this issue for the administration. She says that, while student-advisory groups were formed to address the food situation, the administration didn’t appear to listen to them.
“I don’t like the shift in responsibility here,” says Maharaj. “Laying it on the students to budget is easier than acknowledging that they didn’t actually think through the pricing to make sure that it was actually affordable for students. Besides, students can budget all they want, but if there’s no full meal available for $9, the system is not working.”
Student food insecurity has become a growing issue on campuses across North America. And while there’s no easy solution, one remedy that seems to be universally agreed upon is for administrations to communicate directly with students to understand their needs — and then actually factor them into decision-making. That seems like a good place to start.