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Campus dining, students discuss flex point allowance

| Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Inflation over the past year has some students calling for an increase in the flex point budget. 

Though the inflation rate has begun declining since its peak in June 2022, the consumer price index increased 6.5 percent over twelve months, through December 2022. The food away from home index increased by 8.3 percent over twelve months. Prices for food on-campus reflect these increases.

Luigi Alberganti, the executive director of Campus Dining, said that on-campus retail food prices are guided by the restaurants. 

“Each brand is separate. You have Starbucks and you have Chick-fil-a and you have Modern Market,” Alberganti said. “So we do not dictate [menu prices] — we recommend — but ultimately we’ll go with the guidance of the franchise.”

Indeed, on-campus menu prices seem to track off-campus prices relatively closely, though with a slight increase. A grande vanilla sweet cream cold brew from Starbucks costs $4.75 at the Starbucks on State Route 933 and Cleveland and $5.05 on campus. A Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich costs $4.99 at the Chick-fil-A on S Michigan Street and $5.39 on campus. 

The standard meal plan — block 250 — allots $500 in flex points for students to use at on-campus restaurants. The block 250 upgrade plan costs $296 more per semester, but students receive $360 flex points and $360 domer dollars per semester. That amounts to $720 dollars to use at on-campus locations, though domer dollars can also be spent at some off-campus locations.

The block 180 meal plan, which is only available to on-campus seniors, includes 180 meal swipes and $1,000 flex points per semester. This plan costs $203 less per semester than the block 250 plan.

Alberganti said that the flex points were added to the meal plan to offer variety for students by allowing them to eat at on-campus restaurants.

“If I picked the best restaurant in the world and got you to eat there for 30 days in a row, you will get tired of it,” Alberganti said. “Therefore the flex points give you a little break on that.”

Students have been offered $500 in flex points since about 2016, according to Alberganti. The amount was decided by benchmarking against other institutions.

“500 by far has been in the top bracket. I haven’t run into any other institution that did 500,” Alberganti said. He said that $500 in flex points is greater than the amount provided to students at universities like Yale, UMass and Arizona State University.

Alberganti noted that Campus Dining belongs to the National Association of College & University Food Services, which they use to compare their meal plans. At an upcoming convention in March, Campus Dining plans to benchmark their allotment of flex points to ensure that Notre Dame “stays competitive,” Alberganti said.

Over the course of 17 weeks, the $500 flex point allowance breaks down to $30 per week. However, students spend their flex points in a variety of ways.

Jayden Espinoza, a sophomore, said he ran out of flex points around fall break last semester. After fall break, he spent personal money at on-campus restaurants, though not as much as he was spending in flex points before running out.

“I get more or less the same thing every time I go into the dining hall. So if I’m in the mood to eat that, like one of the three things I actually get, then IÆll go to the dining hall,” Espinoza said. “But if it’s like, you know what, I’ve eaten that for the past few days, I just spend flex points.”

Other times, Espinoza said he relies on flex points for convenience’s sake between classes. He predicts that an increase in flex points would not change his behavior.

“I wouldn’t run out as fast but my habits of eating would probably stay similar,” Espinoza said.

Anissa Cavanaugh, a sophomore who cannot eat gluten, said that it is easier for her to eat at flex point-based restaurants than at the dining hall. Though the dining halls offer a regular gluten-free meal, she said it’s often the same thing every day. 

In lieu of the dining halls, Cavanaugh frequents Modern Market and Garbanzo for their gluten-free options. She ran out of flex points two or three weeks before the end of last semester, though she had 80 or 90 meal swipes left. 

“It’s more expensive to get gluten-free options,” Cavanaugh said of on-campus restaurants. “I’ll pay like two or three extra dollars every time I get a meal … So it’s hard to have the same flex points as everyone else but have to pay more for my meals.”

According to Alberganti, Campus Dining works with a registered dietitian to try and accommodate each student’s dietary needs. He said he hears recommendations that students with dietary restrictions receive the senior-only block 180 plan, or something similar so that they can have more flex points to spend at on-campus restaurants.

“If we cannot accommodate those [dietary needs] then probably we examine that option, but normally, with the allergens especially, we can make special meals for students on a daily basis,” Alberganti said. “So we try to exhaust those options before getting into any exceptions to the requirement.”

Alberganti also said he often sees first-year students deplete their flex points early in the semester.

“You see a little bit of different behavior with sophomore and upperclassmen, extending the flex points and doing a little bit of better budgeting with that,” Alberganti added.

Natalie Sekerak, a freshman in Welsh Family Hall, differs from that norm. She has about $750 flex points left, after saving from last semester.

“First semester, I strictly used [flex points] at Chick-fil-a every Friday after my last class,” Sekerak said. “That was about the only time I would spend flex points last semester.”

This semester, she is more willing to spend flex points at restaurants like Au Bon Pain, though she anticipates using up what’s left of the $750 with a “really big, treat myself meal” at Rohr’s.

Despite her tendency to save, Sekerak thinks she would spend more flex points if given more than $500 per semester. 

“Because I feel like for $500, especially at the prices that they charge you for stuff now, it’s just not worth it,” Sekerak said. 

Alberganti said he cannot speak to whether an increase in flex point allowance is coming. The flex point budget is part of the room and board cost paid by each student, which is decided by the Board of Directors.

Though students have received $500 in flex points since about 2016, the price of room and board typically increases from year to year. Between the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, the room and board price is predicted to increase from $16,710 and $17,378.

However, Alberganti said that it is significantly more expensive to run on-campus restaurants than traditional dining halls.

“The first thing we want to protect against is food insecurity,” Alberganti said. “So making a nice, generous amount of swipes … The flex points are treated as the cushioning or the extra factor of that.”

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