03/28/2015 10:00 EDT | Updated 05/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Mandatory and costly meal plans often fail to satisfy, student leaders say

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A social media eruption this week over raw meat and mouldy food at Memorial University of Newfoundland highlights growing frustration across Canada with mandatory meal plans, say student leaders.

"There's certainly a trend with privatized food services on campus not meeting the needs and requirements of the campus community," said Bilan Arte, deputy chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students.

Issues range from inflexible meal times and locations to lack of vegetarian, kosher and other faith-based options, she said.

"It becomes a very stressful and entrapping kind of feeling for a lot of students."

Those who can't make meal times or get enough of the foods they need wind up racking up even more debt buying groceries, Arte said.

"We hear about it often."

Mandatory meal plans that generally cost about $2,000 per semester are typical at many Canadian universities, especially for first- and second-year dormitory students.

Arte described "a clear distinction" between dining halls run by catering giants such as Aramark and those that are locally operated.

"There's a remarkable difference in quality, options and in service," she said. "It's a testament to the direction we think institutions should be taking, which is looking at more locally sourced, in-house options for food service."

Aramark started a five-year contract at Memorial University in 2013. Spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in an emailed statement earlier this week that the company's food safety procedures are "industry leading and if questions are raised we fix them quickly."

"Serving safe, nutritious food is our top priority," she said after photos circulated online of undercooked pork chops, a mouldy lemon and a fly in a taco dish.

"We are very concerned about the images posted on social media as they are not at all reflective of our high quality standards."

Scott Rairdan, residence representative for the student union at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said complaints about Aramark on that campus are not as serious as at Memorial University.

Still, students are forced to pay "massive amounts of money" for relatively little variety, he said.

"There's generally not the healthiest food across campus coming out of these meal halls. There are healthier alternatives, but they're the same every week and typically those alternatives are not the tastiest."

Rairdan said the lack of any opt-out for students tied to meal plans offers little incentive for spicing up daily menus.

"If you're not happy eating that, you're not going to be eating it as much. You're going to be getting Ichiban noodles in your dorm room," he said. "That's a trend that I've been seeing from a lot of students across campus."

There is another way, said Rorie Mcleod Arnould, president of the University of Winnipeg Students' Association.

Diversity Food Services is a joint venture between the university and SEED Winnipeg, a non-profit agency that fights poverty and promotes inner-city economic programs.

"They're putting together rotating, innovative meal options for students that look at using quality ingredients, innovative packaging and good taste as being important," Mcleod Arnould said.

"Diversity throws out the box and tries to create something ideal as opposed to something that's just serviceable."

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