Commentary, Opinion

The mandatory meal plan should be taken off the table

Cramped dorm rooms, unknown roommates, and questionable cafeteria food are all pillars of the first-year university student experience. However, in enforcing a mandatory meal plan for all students in residence, except for those in Solin Hall and the MORE houses, McGill stifles student autonomy. Meal plans are not mandatory at many of Canada’s other top universities: Schools such as the University of Toronto and Waterloo use a tiered system where students are given the option to choose a plan that best suits their needs. In contrast, McGill’s singular, mandatory meal plan fails students in the transitional period of first year, and is not only coddling, but outdated. Students should be given the choice to select tiered meal plans of varying sizes, or opt out altogether, and the residence meal plan should, fundamentally, not be mandatory. 

Given that the first year of university can be overwhelming, being able to fall back on prepared meals can certainly take the pressure off having to prep and cook meals for the week. Although shopping for groceries and cooking is not a viable option for every first-year student due to lack of space and cooking amenities in residence, it remains a valuable skill set once they move into their own apartments. Adopting a tiered meal plan system, or an optional one where students can add money when desired, would allow students flexibility to do as they wish, whether that be cooking for themselves all the time, sometimes, or not at all. Additionally, the average cost of groceries is around $300 to $400 a month—multiply that by the eight months of the school year, and the top end is $3,200. McGill’s mandatory meal plan, on the other hand, is $5,975. Paying for convenience is one thing, but that nearly 90 per cent increase in fees is entirely another, ultimately making the system financially inaccessible to some. A tiered meal plan would give students the choice, and flexibility to spend money on food as they wish.  

Particularly in the last two years, the mandatory meal plan has become less and less useful. With students being online for at least a portion of their schooling, be it last year or this one, many decided to stay home. Despite the introduction of a rollover plan, where unused dining dollars could be used in the next year, it still seems like a waste of money. McGill does also offer a Saver Meal Plan, albeit not for students in residence, so those who wish to continue eating at the various dining halls can do so throughout their degree. It seems odd that students have the choice to extend their meal plan, but not opt out of it. Though the dining hall food is not infamously terrible like other universities, students are not even given the choice: McGill forces OneCard on first-year residence students, and the money has to be spent one way or another.  

Furthermore, for students who have dietary restrictions, the meal plan does not even provide convenience due to the lack of options—especially during the pandemic with restrictions and limits on occupancy and staff. Halal and kosher options are scarce, and there are accommodations for those who are vegan, vegetarian, and gluten/dairy free, but they are repetitive and lackluster. With limited options, many students with special dietary needs resort to grocery shopping on top of paying for the meal plan—which should not be necessary considering the plan’s base cost. 

With its compulsory meal plans, McGill forces its students to give up some of their autonomy in first year. On top of the steep fees, the meal plan’s options are limited, and often not as accommodating to dietary restrictions as one would expect. And from the last two years, students have accumulated hundreds of dollars in rollover, despite the fact that the dining halls accept other forms of payment. So though you might be craving RVC pasta, or a Quesada burrito, it is easy to forget that OneCard should not have to be your only option. 

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