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Students' food fight with U of W

Meal-plan policy leaves bad taste in mouth

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Jamie Graham, a University of Winnipeg student, bought a $1,700 meal plan. At the end of the last semester, and with $800 left on her plan, she decided to spend it all on energy drinks rather than lose the money.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Jamie Graham, a University of Winnipeg student, bought a $1,700 meal plan. At the end of the last semester, and with $800 left on her plan, she decided to spend it all on energy drinks rather than lose the money. Photo Store

Frustrated University of Winnipeg students say they're fed up with the mandatory meal plan and want balances remaining on their pre-paid cards to either roll over or be refunded.

The student association says meal-plan money lost to student residents at the end of term is a hot issue. But university officials say such a move would negate the meal plan's tax exemption.

Students living in McFeetors Hall, a U of W residence, pay rent of $525 a month and must buy a $1,700 meal-plan card. The money must be spent by the end of term or the student forfeits the balance.

Jamie Graham, a first-year student who lived in McFeetors last term, asked to have the balance of her meal plan transferred onto a gift card. She works part-time at a restaurant and often eats at work. With just two weeks to go until the end of term, she had more than $1,000 left on her plan.

"They said they couldn't put (the remaining dollars) on a gift card 'because then you could give it to someone else and then that's illegal because of the tax-free exemption,' " Graham said.

Rather than lose her money, Graham bought almost $800 worth of Powerade and other drinks.

Jeremy Read, senior executive officer and adviser to the university president, said the policy complies with tax guidelines. "(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," said Read in a statement.

But a 2011 online ruling by the federal tax agency says unused money on student meal plans can be carried over or refunded without jeopardizing the tax exemption.

Kevin Lloyd, a spokesman with the Canada Revenue Agency, said he could not provide an official statement on the issue, but he could confirm the 2011 online ruling is from the tax agency.

University officials wouldn't comment on the ruling, but say it's wrong to think of leftover meal-plan dollars as expiring. "There is no expiration because it is not a gift card, it is a service agreement that has conditions that all students have ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with before agreeing to the contract," said university spokeswoman Diane Poulin.

In at least one case, the university broke its own rule and issued refunds in the form of gift cards.

Last summer, on-campus restaurants that accept the meal-plan cards frequently closed early, leaving students in the lurch.

Dhruv Barman, an international student who lived in McFeetors, said he often had to buy dinner elsewhere. "So I just asked if I could get a refund," he said and campus staff told him his unused money could be transferred onto a Diversity Food Services gift card. (Diversity is the university's exclusive food provider for meal-plan students.)

Poulin confirmed gift cards were issued to students.

"There were extenuating circumstances last summer that limited our operating hours at Elements -- the Restaurant," Poulin said. "So we made the decision to provide gift cards to McFeetors students in residence as compensation."

Dylan Cohen, a first-year student on the meal-plan program, said he was not made aware of the expiration policy when he signed the contract. He moved into residence on a busy day in September and staff did not explain the contract to him, he said.

"You had no consultation on what you were signing," he said.

Lydia Warkentin, manager of food services for campus living, was unsympathetic. She agreed to an interview but questions had to be submitted in advance and the interview could not be recorded. She said 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," said Warkentin.

Cohen filed a complaint with the provincial consumer protection office, arguing the expiration policy violates legislation banning the expiration of prepaid cards.

The office determined that because the meals are included in a service agreement, the plan's cards aren't gift cards.

Megan Fultz, president of the University of Winnipeg Students' Association, said: "It's been one of the main issues that students have come to us about in my term," she said. "It's definitely high on our radar."

austin.grabish@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 B1

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