As dining options go, Flex is far from flexible

The idea behind a Flex dining option seems reasonable enough. Few students actually eat 21 meals a week — after all, only two dining halls even offer breakfast on the weekends — and it makes sense that upperclassmen should be able to live on campus without always eating there.

But with the way Flex is structured now, it is hard to feel anything but ripped off. The math behind the system is absurd enough: Get rid of seven meals every week from a $2,050 a semester meal plan, and you get just $100 back to spend elsewhere. But on top of that, those $100 in Flex dollars are anything but flexible. In an area heavily populated with popular, inexpensive restaurants, Flex can be used at all of two places off campus, Yorkside and Naples, plus the Yale-operated Durfee’s convenience store. And while Bulldog Burrito is reportedly close to its own Flex arrangement, Yalies can be forgiven for doubting that their dining options will increase significantly any time soon.

The sticking point, of course, comes down to money. Local restaurants shy away from the 18 percent commission the University charges when students use Flex, while the University says it cannot afford to cut its revenues any further. So restaurants that once took Flex, like Au Bon Pain, have dropped out of the program. And others that have long been mentioned as possible Flex options, like Ivy Noodle, still question whether the program is a good deal.

We are not the first to point out the weaknesses of the Flex program in this space. Complaints about Flex are nothing new because Yale University Dining Services has never seemed to find a way to make the system work. Instead, the University engages in an elaborate process that involves a lot of talk about new restaurants considering Flex but little in the way of new options. With neither the University nor local restaurants willing to budge, students are ultimately left picking up the tab.

Reports that an agreement between Yale and Bulldog Burrito would set a new, more affordable standard are encouraging, but recent history has taught us to be skeptical about Flex. Instead, it might be time for Yale to start thinking differently about the program. A good place to start would be looking at how other universities succeed where Yale does not. At some schools, Flex-type options are linked with debit-card programs that allow students to draw down their accounts at local retailers, introducing business owners to a pool of customers that would make signing on to a University-sponsored system more attractive. Whether or not Yale takes that approach, a new model is needed if Flex is going to make anyone happy.

For Yale’s dining services, there is little apparent incentive to change the program — their customer base has nowhere else to go, and making too many changes risks the bottom line. But given how much effort Yale has put into attracting the kind of low-cost restaurants that Flex seems perfect for, it is unfortunate that no one has yet found a way to bring those businesses into the dining system. Until that happens, anyone who thinks choice should mean a little more than two pizza places and a University-owned convenience store will remain disappointed.

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