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McGill University students decry 'exorbitant' cost of on-campus food

At McGill University, three bags of buttery popcorn sets students back $8.25. At a Provigo about a five-minute walk from the university, the same box goes for $4.29. Students say the high cost of food on campus — like a fruit cup that costs more than $6 — is forcing students to skip meals.  (Submitted by Emilie Hardie - image credit)
At McGill University, three bags of buttery popcorn sets students back $8.25. At a Provigo about a five-minute walk from the university, the same box goes for $4.29. Students say the high cost of food on campus — like a fruit cup that costs more than $6 — is forcing students to skip meals. (Submitted by Emilie Hardie - image credit)

On Monday, Emilie Hardie, a second-year McGill University student, purchased a pre-packaged salad and an orange juice for lunch at one of the dining halls on her school's campus.

Tax free, it cost her $21.75.

"That is unacceptable to demand students pay this amount [for] every meal," she said.

At residential dining halls and other food locations across campus, students say the food prices at McGill have gotten out of hand — $11 for a slice of pizza, $5.82 for a single granola bar and $15 for a 170-gram pack of raspberries are just a few examples raising alarm.

Submitted by Emilie Hardie
Submitted by Emilie Hardie

Hardie said as a freshman, the cost of food on campus was so expensive that she couldn't afford to eat three meals a day.

"I would skip meals and I developed a sort of eating disorder, so I had to go to the doctor," she said.

Skipping or minimizing meals has become common among her peers, she said, primarily because of the pricey and mandatory meal plan all undergraduate students living in the university's kitchenless residences are forced to buy into — a plan that obliges them to purchase their food on campus or risk wasting the money.

Hardie said the meal plan's base amount only covers one to one-and-a-half meals per day, forcing students to empty their wallets to load up their cards should they want more food.

She's now part of a new student-led campaign called Let's Eat McGill, a group fighting for more equitable access to food, subsidized meals from the university and an end to the mandatory meal plan.

"Options on campus should not be catered toward a certain higher income demographic. They should be accessible and affordable to all students," she said.

200% markup compared to supermarkets

Including administrative fees, McGill's meal plan costs $6,200 for the eight-month academic year — $4,725 of which can be used to purchase food. Functioning like a debit card, funds are deducted from the balance each time food is purchased on campus.

According to the university's food and dining services website, this base amount is "not designed to cover the cost of all your meals for the entire academic year."

"Most likely, you will need to top up or add food dollars at some point depending on your spending habits and food preferences," the site reads.

Submitted by Emilie Hardie
Submitted by Emilie Hardie

Lola Milder, an undergraduate student at McGill and one of the founding members of Let's Eat McGill, said students shouldn't even be spending the meal plan's base amount on food per school year.

"It feels like a fact on campus that the dining halls are too expensive. Its almost like a joke," she said.

While the university has attributed its climbing cafeteria prices to inflation, she said direct comparisons with local grocery stores show large disparities in prices.

"When we compared McGill's prices to Provigo and other supermarkets … we found a 200 per cent markup or more," she said.

"It's really exorbitant."

Milder said students are going to restaurants off campus to seek out cheaper options.

McGill to shift toward all-you-can-eat meal plan

In a statement Tuesday, McGill's student housing and hospitality services (SHHS) said it's "sensitive to the financial challenges that many students are facing," however prices must cover all operational expenses, including the rising cost of food due to inflation.

However, it said after an extensive review and in response to feedback from students, the SHHS will be transitioning away from the current mandatory declining balance meal plan and implementing an all-you-care-to-eat (AYCTE) meal plan model in residential dining halls starting in the fall of 2023.

"With the AYCTE meal plan, students will be able to choose from a wide variety of healthy and local foods based on their nutritional needs and personal preferences rather than choosing meals based on price," the statement reads.

Still, Milder has her doubts, saying this is not necessarily a fix-all solution.

"I think it depends on price and how that is regulated," she said. "For example, can students take food out or must they eat it in the dining hall, and how much does that plan cost?"

She said other prestigious universities in the country, including Concordia and the University of British Columbia, have stepped in to subsidize rising costs.

"[McGill] can make a choice to step in and subsidize student housing and hospitality services in order to protect students from that inflation," she said, adding she doesn't accept the university's solution.

For her part, Hardie would like McGill to work with students so they can have some agency over the food systems at the university, including prices and food options.

She said this can be done by funding student-run cafés or groceries — something Concordia does.

"We haven't seen any effort from [McGill], from the administration [or] from the board of governors to subsidize these costs," she said.

Let's Eat McGill held an assembly on campus Tuesday evening to speak to students about food insecurity in an effort to get them to participate in the campaign.