More than a thousand students living on the University of British Columbia campus are paying as much as $280 more a year for food because of a little-known loophole in the meal plan.
First year students living at Totem Park and Place Vanier residences must purchase a meal plan, which includes a 31 per cent overhead charge to cover the cost of running the dining halls.
Depending on which of the four plans they choose, students can pay about $990 to $1,272 in charges.
The minimum plan includes less money for food. But if students runs out, they can add to their account without paying the 31 per cent overhead. Students, then, can save hundreds of dollars by choosing the cheapest plan.
About half of students living in first year residences with mandatory meal plans bought the minimum for the 2009-10 academic year. The other 1,206 students chose one of the three more expensive options, UBC officials said.
Students who pay the extra fees are not thrilled.
“I honestly think that that’s really unfair to like not let the students know, ’cause then naturally students would like go for a smaller meal plan and then add money on,” said Reshma Misra, a first year arts student on the cheaper plan.
UBC officials say the meal plans are clear in their descriptions and administration.
When students move to campus they sign a residence contract that outlines the charges. Section 4.07 defines the charges and appendix V lists the amounts.
“In my 18 years of dealing with meal plans, the structure of this plan is the best,” said Loriann McGowan, the director of food operations.
When each plan had the same overhead charge, it upset smaller eaters because they paid the same amount in operational costs as more frequent dining hall users, she said.
“I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to do the math … because we’re very clear on our contract that there is no further overhead charge on any additional meal dollars that are spent,” she said.
“How it’s all structured, everything is there in black and white as far as what those overhead charges and what not are.”
Choosing to buy a bigger meal plan sometimes comes down to budgeting, McGowan said.
Students may find budgeting easier on the most expensive plan because they know the money can last the whole year. They do not have to worry about it again, she said.
But some students have figured out that they can enjoy the same benefit more cheaply by purchasing the minimum plan, paying it in full and immediately adding money to avoid additional overhead costs.
Meal plan information is on the UBC food services website. Students or parents who are confused can phone for clarification.
Food operations employees describe the plans based on students’ eating habits. If callers are still undecided, they are advised to buy the minimum, McGowan said, but are told it will not be enough to cover all their meals in residence.
Despite the help, some first year students with mandatory meal plans do not seem to know about the overhead charges.
Misra did not know. She received e-mails from the university asking her to look at meal plan choices, but never noticed the overhead charges in her selection.
She could not figure out why her meal plan balance was declining so quickly. She now understands that overheads costs gobbled up 31 per cent of her balance.
She thinks the university should warn students that some have to pay more overhead than others.
Nikitha Gopal, also a first year arts student, did not know the charges existed until after she arrived.
She chose the most expensive plan because the website recommended it if she would be eating on campus most weekends. She switched to the minimum after many students advised her to.
“I’m so glad I switched it ’cause that’s just crazy… I can’t believe they would do that,” she said.
Word of mouth
Some students hear about the loophole from their friends before picking their plan.
Niyoti Divekar is a first year commerce student on the minimum plan. A friend tipped her off.
She would have bought a more expensive plan otherwise. She said the food services website should be more explicit about charges.
Science student Anthony Mackay didn’t have friends to clue him in. He bought the regular meal plan and later learned about the loophole from his residence advisor. Knowing earlier would have saved him hundreds.
“I would have definitely bought the lighter meal plan to avoid the heavier overhead costs,” he said.