Put the flexibility back into Flex Dollars

This fall, when Yale increased its cut from purchases made at local restaurants under the Flex program, Au Bon Pain chose not to renew its contract with the University. The soup-and-sandwich maker’s withdrawal from the Flex program means students are able to redeem their Flex dollars at even fewer locations and is a sign that the program itself is floundering.

We think it’s a shame that so few restaurants are participating in Flex and are disappointed that an increase in the University’s share of sales will discourage new eateries from joining the program. We hope the University thinks seriously about not only finding a suitable replacement for Au Bon Pain, but also about further reforming and expanding the Flex program.

Flex dollars, which students can purchase each semester, can be redeemed for food at local restaurants. The University receives a percentage of each Flex transaction, and when that percentage increased this fall, Au Bon Pain, which participated in the Flex program the last several years, said the increase made a deal with Yale cost-prohibitive. So this fall, students can spend their Flex dollars at a grand total of three locations: Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant, the almost-defunct Naples Pizza and Restaurant, and Yale-owned Durfee’s Sweet Shoppe.

There are lots of reasons for students not to choose Flex. The marginal increase in convenience of handing over our Yale ID cards at the cash register instead of our Visas hardly seems to justify signing onto the limited menu of options Flex provides. And now that two swipes make it possible to make up for missed meals by “shopping” for two meals worth of food at the School of Management or the Law School, Flex — at least in its current incarnation — seems more irrelevant than ever.

The departure of Au Bon Pain from the Flex program is a huge loss that leaves students with only a narrow range of dining options — and no healthy ones. The stereotype of the pizza-scarfing college student is somewhat outdated, and the students on this campus have developed palates for a wide-range of cuisines. Flex restaurants should reflect these tastes and offer food that expands on the options available in the dining halls. Pizza, which is served at virtually every meal in Commons, does not fit this criterion. We are pleased to see that Ivy Noodle — which offers a distinct menu, low prices (unlike Durfee’s) and late hours (unlike Naples) — is a potential Flex location and think the University would do well to look for these same characteristics when considering other restaurants to include.

But there are better ways to make Flex an appealing option for students. One possibility would be to allow students to transfer a given number of meals each week to Flex locations, instead of giving each student a set dollar value to spend each semester. This would allow students to make up for missed meals without having to decide at the beginning of the semester how many meals they plan to eat in the dining hall.

We’d love to see a greater reform of the Flex program, which we think has the potential to offer a valuable service. But at the very least, we’d like to see an expansion of the program to reflect student tastes and schedules. Without such growth, even larger reforms in the program will not make it attractive.

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