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Letter to the Editor: The questionable value of Flex Dollars


For many Oles, discussing Bon Appétit and its role in our community is nothing new. In the last several years at St. Olaf, Bon Appétit has had its fair share of hardships, harsh criticism, and detractors — of which I admit, I am one. However, Bon Appétit does a hard and often thankless job within our community — keeping us all fed. Therefore, this piece is intended to promote a larger conversation about Bon Appétit in our community, how we feed people, and the policies St. Olaf puts in place to this end.


The catalyst for this piece is a quote from a previous Olaf Messenger article entitled: “Bon Appétit and Financial Office pause plans to make changes to The Lion’s Pause,” published February 29, 2024 by Megan Lu, wherein it states, “a drink priced at $4.50 at the Cage costs $19.79 of a student’s tuition.” This quote initially seemed outlandish, so I did the math. To attend St. Olaf College in the 2023-24 Academic Year, students must purchase a $6,800 meal plan, however, the distribution of these meals is left up to the student via selection of the number of meals per week. These options are 14, 17, and 21 meals per week. To compensate for the meals forgone, students are provided an allowance of Flex Dollars respective to the meal plan selected — for 17 meals, a student receives 380 Flex Dollars, and for 14 meals a student receives 540 Flex Dollars. (Figure A)

By dividing the 672 meals provided in the 21-meal plan by its 2023-24 Academic Year cost of $6800, you can calculate the average cost per meal of $10.12. In the most extreme case, the 14-meal plan, a student is giving up 224 meals at a value of $10.12 per meal, therefore this student forgoes $2,266.24 of meals. In this case, the student is compensated only 540 Flex Dollars or 2.41 Flex Dollars per $10.12 meal forgone. This means students on the 14-meal plan pay roughly $4.20 dollars for every Flex Dollar.


Shown below is a “price-adjusted” menu illustrating the upfront cost students actually pay for food at the Cage, assuming the student has a 14-meal plan and pays with Flex Dollars. (Figure B)

However, despite the incredibly high ratio of Flex Dollars to dollars paid by students, after some further investigation, I do not believe that we can solely blame Bon Appétit or “corporate greed” for this near 420 percent markup. Instead, we first need to address the underlying system behind it. This started with another Mess article written by Cassidy Neuner on Oct. 30, 2015 entitled: “Bon Appétit Hosts ‘Cafonomics.’” This article explored how the money students pay for their meal plans is distributed. The 2015 Bon Appétit Board Manager, Randy Clay, said, “the typical response I see… is that basically your meals cost about $10 apiece… the economic reality is that the money you pay through the school for your board plan is shared between Bon Appétit and the school. We do not get all that money to spend on food. In reality, we get a portion of that money, roughly half, to run our entire operation from the top down. That includes all our salaries, payroll, purchasing your food, and preparing your meals.” Additionally, Clay said, “the daily cost of our meal plans…is roughly $2.96 per plate.”


Using this analysis, if Bon Appétit compensates students 2.41 Flex Dollars per meal forgone on a 14-meal plan and the cost of the meal to Bon Appétit is $2.96, we can estimate that they are retaining only $0.55 from the student per meal. This seems fair given the higher cost associated with made-to-order food. Granted, the article from 2015 utilizes old numbers from a prior Bon Appétit contract. Given current numbers they are likely retaining more per meal. However, the 2021 Bon Appétit contract is not public information.


This leaves me with several questions: why does St. Olaf only have one meal plan option costing students $6,800 in 2023-24 and increasing to $7,130 in 2024-25? Shouldn’t St. Olaf students have the freedom and autonomy to choose a meal plan relevant to their circumstances, with a higher or lower cost associated? Why is this system treated as one-size-fits-all? Would offering 14 or 17-meal options without Flex Dollars at a lower price point benefit students in terms of preferences and economic value?


Samuel Browne is from Northfield, Minn.

His major is economics.