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A chef at University of British Columbia prepares a kale salad.

When Ella Reifsnyder left her hometown in North Carolina for McGill University in Montreal, her idea of residence food was a combination of cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizzas.

Instead, she was greeted with a made-to-order spaghetti station, a fresh fruit bar replete with multiflavoured yogurt and to-go sushi boxes stacked neatly in an open refrigerator. As if 12-ounce steaks were not enough to woo students, the dining hall frequently organized themed nights with different cultural dishes. On one Mexican themed night, a mariachi band played live.

All this came at a cost.

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Ms. Reifsnyder paid more than $5,000 for her meal plan, one of the highest across the country. Indeed, most universities require students living on campus to purchase a meal plan, unless the residence is equipped with kitchen facilities. A typical meal plan comes as two flavours: a fixed portion that makes up the majority of meal-plan credit and can be used only in dining halls, and a flexible portion for use at other food vendors on campus, such as Starbucks and Subway.

Now a third-year engineering student, Ms. Reifsnyder lives off-campus and spends about 20 minutes commuting to school. Long nights in the library and the requirements of teamwork means Ms. Reifsnyder still eats mostly on campus. But she doesn't plan on visiting the dining halls anytime soon.

“Without my meal plan, I usually just don’t go to them, because they are too expensive,” Ms. Reifsnyder says.

She frequents Tim Hortons and Vinh's Café, a tuck shop offering Vietnamese-style baguettes and soup noodles. Both offer food at half the price of residential dining halls.

She also has the student-government food app installed on her phone, which shows daily deals from local restaurants, and regularly scouts on Facebook for cheap or free food events on campus.

If there is anyone more attuned to criticisms that meal plans are too expensive, it would be David Speight, the chef running one of Canada's largest campus dining-hall services at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

McMaster Hospitality Services offers eight meal-plan options.

“We know that students are on a budget,” Mr. Speight says. “But what we are doing is providing them with an opportunity that they don’t need to plan, they don’t need to shop, they don’t need to prep and cook their food and they don’t need to clean up.”

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Another factor contributing to higher costs is the dramatic changes dining halls have undertaken over the past few years. Campus kitchens are transitioning away from heavily processed foods to raw ingredients processed in house. Perhaps most obvious to students and parents are the posters and labels emphasizing sustainable food procurement and locally sourced foods, an indication that dining halls are stepping away from simply buying particular produce in bulk at the lowest price.

"All of those things, quite frankly, cost money, and we need to pass that cost onto the students," Mr. Speight adds.

And, unlike most restaurants, which operate at hours that will best maximize profits, dining halls have to run almost 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and stay open during adverse weather conditions when a regular restaurant would normally shut down. Dining halls also provide employment opportunities for students, and, in most cases, are unionized.

"Our labour [cost] is much higher than a restaurant where they are paying minimum wage for the most part," says Chris Roberts, director of hospitality services at McMaster University in Hamilton, and president of the Canadian College and University Food Service Association.

At the end of the day, dining halls must make ends meet, with part of the profit ending up in the university's pocket.

McMaster Hospitality Services, which offers eight meal-plan options, recently overhauled the system so students no longer lose all of their unused meal-plan credit; now, a portion of the remaining amount can be rolled over for future use. Other universities limit the meal-plan options, restrict the amount that can be rolled over or simply charge more to cover costs.

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On the second floor of Ryerson University’s Student Centre is the food bank, Good Food Centre.

Yet, for most students juggling high living expenses and tuition costs, spending $30 a day on food is not a viable option. It is why different initiatives have spawned on campuses, with the aim of reducing food insecurity among students.

Founded as an “alternative to the corporate-run cafeterias on campus,” People’s Potato is a student-run kitchen housed at Concordia University in Montreal. Industrial-sized steamers can be found inside the kitchen, and across the room, student volunteers peel and chop vegetables. During lunch hours on school days, anyone can line up with a container in front of the serving window.

All food served is vegan; meals consist of a combination of grain, soup, stew and a salad.

Students and other community members are not required to pay for their meals, but may contribute a donation.

The kitchen serves about 500 people a day. People’s Potato obtains its funding through a levy, where students pay a few dollars on top of their tuition to fund different services and initiatives. The levy allows the kitchen to purchase rice, spices and other staples – items that are needed on a regular basis.

"And the rest of the food we get from [food bank] Moisson Montréal," says Iman Khailat, one of the board members of People's Potato.

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Food banks run by students are no longer an uncommon sight on campuses. Tucked on the second floor of Ryerson University's Student Centre is the Good Food Centre, a food bank in the heart of downtown Toronto.

The modest space accommodates shelves which are stocked with fruit, vegetables and non-perishable items, alongside a refrigerator and freezer, where dairy products, meat and microwavable meals can be found.

“Nobody really wants to use a food bank – and I think that’s something that needs to be highlighted – but many people have to use a food bank,” says Kimberley Vaz, operations co-ordinator at the Good Food Centre.

Each student is given a weekly allowance of 10 points; larger items, such as a bag of milk, are worth a point each, smaller things, such as potatoes, are four for a point.

According to Ms. Vaz, the centre sees about 90 unique visits a week.

Ryerson students do not need to demonstrate financial need in order to use the food bank. Still, Ms. Vaz hopes to improve outreach in the future and persuade students whom they do not typically see to give it a try.

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“There’s a lot of research that shows people who are experiencing high levels of [food] insecurity actually are the least likely to use food banks because of the stigma. So we want to work on that; we want to really create a good community vibe in the centre,” Ms. Vaz adds.

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