Drowning in sports drinks

The University’s student meal plan has its flaws

Jamie Graham never thought she would spend more than $750 at one time on Gatorade and soft drinks, but that’s what she did late last month.

She’s not a mother with several kids in sports nor does she coach a team – she’s just a frustrated University of Winnipeg student who had no choice but to spend the money that remained on her pre-paid meal plan by December 19, 2013.

Spend it, or lose it, is the university’s policy.

“It sucks having to spend $800 on things you don’t need when you’re working to pay for tuition,” says Graham, a first-year student.

Graham is just one of several students who live in McFeetors Hall, the main student residence on campus, who say they are frustrated with the expiration policy on mandatory student meal plan cards.

Diversity Food Services is the university’s food services contractor, and exclusive food provider for meal plan students. The company is a joint venture between SEED Winnipeg and the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation (UWCRC).

Before moving in, students who want to live in McFeetors have to sign a meal plan contract with Diversity Food Services and pay $1,700 per term for a pre-paid meal card, in addition to their monthly rent of $525.

Lydia Warkentin, Manager of Campus Living (Food Services) for UWCRC, says all students are made aware of the expiration policy on prepaid meal cards before they sign the contract.  

“I don’t believe anyone holds a gun to their head and forces them to sign it,” Warkentin says.

Student meal plan cards are prepaid and run on a declining balance system. At the end of the term, any left over funds on the card expire.

“I feel ripped off,” says Dylan Cohen, another first-year student who is on the meal plan program.

“I don’t want my money to expire.”

But that’s exactly what was going to happen to Cohen and Graham, and many others, when the meal plan term ended.

Graham and Cohen both asked Diversity management if the remaining funds on their pre-paid cards could carry over to next term or be put on a gift card. Both were told the unused money could not and would expire.

Instead, Graham says management at Diversity offered to help her with her meal planning.

The 21-year-old wasn’t impressed.

“I don’t need help, I know how to eat,” Graham said.

Graham works four nights a week at a nearby restaurant and eats many of her meals there, and says that’s why she had so much money left over money on her card.

She explains that when she asked why money couldn’t carry over she was told it was because it would jeopardize the tax exemption meal plan students get.

In 2011, an unidentified party asked the Canada Revenue Agency if unused money on student meal plans could carry over or be refunded to students without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. While the CRA response suggests that unused funds may be carried forward, they likely could not be transferred to a gift card under the current legislation. 

“The CRA questions whether an arrangement where students are given the full discretion to transfer or withdraw funds from an account….would be a meal plan (qualifying or otherwise),” the report states.    

Rather than letting their unused funds go to waste, both Cohen and Graham ended up stocking up on snacks and drinks.

Graham ended up moving out of McFeetors early and paid a $350 penalty for doing so, while Cohen took his complaint to the province’s Consumer Protection Office.

He argued the expiration policy was in violation of a 2007 amendment to the Consumer Protection Act banning the expiration of prepaid cards, but a spokesperson with the province said the Consumer Protection Office investigated and found the legislation doesn’t apply because the meals are included as part of a service agreement and aren’t considered a gift card.

That decision isn’t sitting well with students.

“The CPO is doing basically nothing about this,” Cohen says.  

And though Warkentin contends students are made aware of the expiration policy for meal cards before moving in, Cohen disagrees.

He says when he moved into residence in September it was a busy day, and he didn’t realize what he signed until after he had moved in.

“They definitely didn’t go through it (the contract) thoroughly,” said Cohen, “You had no consultation on what you were signing.”

Cohen now wants to know how much expired money the university has taken from students and where it’s gone to.  

“Someone in Diversity is making money off this.”

Warkentin would not comment on how much expired money the University has collected in unused meal plan funds since the meal plan program began in 2009, but she did say that students shouldn’t think of left over money on their cards as being theirs because they’ve signed a contract and paid for a service.

“The dollars on the meal plan aren’t your dollars,” Warkentin says. “It’s a marker.”

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Published in Volume 68, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 8, 2014)

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