At the University of Chicago, two words have come to take on particular meanings. Aramark is synonymous with mediocre food and infamously poor service; Flex (as in Flex dollars), signifies the flexibility and power to choose what we, as students, want to eat, and when and where we want to eat it.
But it doesn’t really. Instead, Flex offers only the freedom to choose among the unholy trinity of Bart Mart, Hutch, and the C-Shop. It does not, as it does at many other schools, function as a simple, centralized payment system to pick up food or dine out at local restaurants. On an already insular campus, forcing money into an Aramark-only Flex system keeps students on campus and off of places like 57th Street.
Since Aramark currently administers the Flex dollars program, it’s not surprising that it wants to keep money within its system. But ultimately, the administration is responsible for hiring a contractor to run the campus dining system. (Perhaps it could even consider a company whose CEO is not a University trustee.) With the food services contract set to expire next year, the University should place expanded Flex options high on its list of priorities. While Aramark might find the idea of dining competition unappetizing, the expansion of Flex does not have to be a fiscally damaging prospect: Aramark could charge local restaurants a small fee to integrate Flex into their payment systems.
Since many students currently pay with credit cards––and credit card companies charge substantial fees to merchants––both parties could benefit, as the restaurants would be forced to pay less in commissions.
Undoubtedly the move would also drive up patronage at both on- and off-campus establishments, as diners could forgo a trip to an ATM before heading to campus coffee shops or cash-only restaurants like Salonica. Students tied to dining contracts would have a greater incentive to explore the Hyde Park restaurant scene if they could spend their meal plan–mandated Flex dollars across the neighborhood, while those choosing to live off-campus would have more reason to buy into the Flex system (and spend money not just at off-campus restaurants, but at the convenient Aramark locations).
Parents, for their part, would feel more comfortable buying Flex than simply sending cash, since they could ensure their children were eating well without having to fear partially financing a shopping spree at Kimbark Liquors. Plus, students carrying around Chicago ID cards rather than cash can be less concerned about having their money lost or stolen.
The U of C campus has no shortage of coffee shops, and Hyde Park has a number of good, cheap restaurants. The University should continue to encourage students to explore the community, and no doubt most students would prefer the convenience of being able to eat off campus while still paying with Flex Dollars.
The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.