Simply put, meal plans are expensive. While different schools have different policies, the University of Winnipeg’s approach has come under considerable scrutiny lately, particularly as it relates to unused meal plan funds.
At present, University of Winnipeg meal plans do not offer refunds at the end of each semester for unused funds. This isn’t a problem for students who use their dining dollars, but for those students who don’t regularly draw from their meal plan the unused sum can be significant.
In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, freshman Jamie Graham reported using just $900 of her mandatory $1700 meal plan, leaving her with $800 dollars that would be forfeited at the end of the semester. Graham lives in McFeetors Hall, a residence operated by the University of Winnipeg. McFeetors Hall charges $525 per month in rent in addition to a mandatory $1700 meal plan.
Graham, who works part-time at a local restaurant in addition to attending school, asked the university to transfer the balance of her meal plan onto a gift card. One of her reasons for not using the full meal plan is that she often eats at work. For students like Graham, the leftover meal plan dollars are substantial. With two weeks left in the semester, she still had more than $1,000 left on her plan.
When the university refused to refund the $800, Graham decided to spend the leftover funds on energy and sports drinks. But why not simply refund those dollars, or put them toward a new meal plan for the following semester? University officials claim that doing so would negate the meal plan’s tax exemption policies.
Jeremy Read, senior executive officer and adviser to the University of Winnipeg’s president, offers further justification for the meal plan policy. “The Canada Revenue Agency allows the student on the meal plan four full months to use up the meal plan amount, the monies for the tax-free meal plan are committed at the beginning of the term and the allocation of resources to provide the services are based on that commitment,” says Read.
Acting in contrast to this statement is a 2011 online ruling made by the Federal Tax Agency, which states that any unused money on student meal plans can in fact be carried over or refunded without threatening the tax exemption. University officials, meanwhile, insist that considering leftover meal-plan dollars as “expiring” is wrong.
“There is no expiration because it is not a gift card,” says Diane Poulin, a university spokeswoman. “It is a service agreement that has conditions that all students have ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with before agreeing to the contract.”
The debate over meal plan policy has been a seemingly never-ending debacle for campuses the world over, and for good reason. While students are certainly put off by losing $800 in unused funds, the burden falls to the university to provide food services in the first place – a service that is by its very nature a considerable expense.
That being said, Winnipeg isn’t doing itself any favors either – at least not from a begrudged student perspective. The university has on at least one occasion gone back on its own rule, issuing refunds to students in the form of – you guessed it – gift cards.
Last summer, on-campus restaurants accepting the meal-plan cards were operating under shorter, summer hours and frequently closed early. The change in hours meant students had less time to spend their meal plan dollars.
Dhruv Barman, an international student who also lived in McFeetors Hall, said he often had to buy dinner elsewhere. When he asked if he could get a refund, Barman said campus staff informed him that the unused dollars could be transferred onto a Diversity Food Services gift card. Diversity is the university’s exclusive food provider for meal-plan students.
Poulin confirmed that the gift cards were issued to students, but insists that it will not be a common practice.
“There were extenuating circumstances last summer that limited our operating hours at Elements – the Restaurant,” says Poulin. “So we made the decision to provide gift cards to students in the McFeetors residence as compensation.”
While this inconsistency is puzzling, the battle over the longstanding meal plan policy will not be won or lost with the University of Winnipeg. Rather, this offers further insight into the plight of both universities and the students they serve; and so the debate rages on.