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Organizers for Real Food Generation, a national group that leads campus-based campaigns to push colleges to break contracts with the “big three” private companies that provide most campus food services -- Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group -- are experiencing new energy behind their movement and getting results on some campuses.
Their successes are occurring as colleges’ partnerships with third-party campus dining services providers are attracting renewed scrutiny and criticism and have become intertwined with the national movement for racial justice being led in part by college students. Students and social advocacy groups have long pushed for fairer and more sustainable practices by these companies and called out their mistreatment of employees of color, as well as the connections large food corporations have to American and international prison systems. But the critiques have been amplified by the social justice movement and are resonating with students committed to changing various college policies and practices with which they take issue.
The economic recession, widespread unemployment and campus closures caused by the pandemic have also prompted students to more deeply examine how and where their dining dollars are spent.
The current wave of opposition to colleges contracting with the three corporations is a coordinated effort focused on urging colleges to create and operate independent dining services, said Hannah Weinronk, a regional coordinator for Real Food Generation. Historically, many colleges have jumped from one private contract to another with one of the three main companies when pressured by students or offered a better deal by the companies.
But lately, the advocates are seeing some colleges make complete breaks from corporate food providers, Weinronk said.
“Students are really rejecting the presence of big food companies on campus, across the board,” Weinronk said. “I think students have always been, and increasingly now are paying a lot of attention to where their money is going, and what corporations and what kind of broader social issues their institutions are tied to.”
Student organizers for Real Food Hopkins, a branch of the national group at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, recently claimed victory in the university’s decision in February not to renew its 25-year contract with Bon Appétit Management Company, a subsidiary of Compass Group. The university will move to a self-operated dining services model for its Homewood and Peabody Institute campuses by July 2022.
Ian Magowan, senior manager of dining programs for Homewood Student Affairs, said in a written statement that the move will provide the university “greater flexibility and oversight of the overall dining experience.” It also “creates more options for delicious and nutritious meals, aligns perfectly with our goals for future dining expansion on campus,” he said.
Magowan said students, faculty and staff members will be “part of shaping what the future dining program looks like” and his department will be “expanding our relationships with small, local and minority-owned businesses as part of our economic inclusion.”
Officials at Kent State University announced last week that they will cut short a contract with Aramark that was scheduled to end in 2025. The move came after a coalition of progressive student organizations on the Ohio campus demanded university administrators “stop abetting private companies as they profit billions off of the oppression and degradation of imprisoned individuals by reaping the benefits of perpetuating mass incarceration.”
Aramark has been criticized for operating dining services in correctional facilities and is under fire for its alleged exploitation of prison labor, an issue that student activist organizations -- especially those that represent Black students -- have publicized and worked against during the last two years.
A 30-member coalition of organizations, many of them representing Black students at the University of Florida, and other noncampus groups began a boycott this semester of the Reitz Union, the student union building on the Gainesville campus that offers dining services provided by Aramark. The coalition's leaders said the boycott was prompted by the company’s “despicable track record of human rights abuses that include exploitation of prison slavery and poor treatment of workers.”
Students on many campuses took note that college dining services workers, many of whom are people of color, were the first to be laid off and furloughed during the pandemic, said Kevin McClure, a professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and an expert in higher ed privatization. He said students are also aware of the big three food companies' reputation for unfair labor practices, including low pay and poor treatment of workers, who are typically outside contractors and don't have the same benefits or protections as university employees.
“It doesn’t sit well with students, because they can see and get the sense that these are employees treated differently than others working at colleges and universities,” he said. “It sometimes feels as if they are second-class citizens on campus and often overlooked.”
Roxie Herbekian, president of UNITE HERE Local 7, a Baltimore union that represents dining services workers employed with Bon Appétit at Hopkins, said the dining services staff have always felt like members of the university community. They build relationships with students and work with organizations such as Real Food Hopkins to meet goals for more sustainable and locally sourced food options, Herbekian said.
But working for Bon Appétit created major uncertainty during the pandemic, when Bon Appétit workers were laid off, she said. About two-thirds of the 181 unionized Hopkins dining services workers were laid off throughout the pandemic; all the workers returned to work by Jan. 15, according to Elaine Smart, the company’s regional vice president.
“It always creates a certain amount of anxiety when there’s a change in contractors, so people are glad that they’re not going to go through that anymore,” Herbekian said of Hopkins’s plan for self-operated services. “I think there’s a feeling from Hopkins that they were recognizing that these workers are part of their community, so why not deal with them directly?”
Herbekian said that when the workers were laid off last year, Hopkins stepped in and provided four weeks' pay and health-care benefits during the period they were not working. The university will offer the dining services workers "comparable positions as university staff" once the contract with Bon Appétit ends, according to a Hopkins press release.
Smart defended Bon Appétit's treatment of workers.
"Our staff members receive training on cooking from scratch, sustainability issues, safety, and service, learning work and life skills that they carry with them throughout their lives," she said in a written statement. "Being part of a larger food service company provides the opportunity for exposure to other local accounts and additional promotional opportunities. We also offer competitive wages and benefits and work collaboratively with collective bargaining units where applicable."
McClure, of UNC Wilmington, estimated that half of all college campuses nationwide have self-operated dining services. Shannon McLaughlin, director of membership and marketing for the National Association of College and University Food Services, a professional organization for campus dining directors, said 220, or 63 percent of association members who represent four- and two-year colleges, have self-operated services. That number has remained “steady” for about the past seven years, McLaughlin said in an email.
Elite and wealthier private colleges are often the institutions that want and can afford to become self-operated in order to have more control over their dining services, focus on students’ food service preferences and foster better employment practices, McClure said. Public institutions that rely on state dollars have not made the transition to self-operated services at the same rate as private colleges or universities, but momentum for change appears to be building at a few large, state-run campuses.
Lamar Hylton, vice president for student affairs at Kent State, said the university’s move to self-operated dining services will allow it to invest in more sustainable food production and service, meet student food preferences and demands to boot Aramark off the campus, and improve relationships with local workers who typically staff Kent State dining facilities.
He said the break with Aramark will also allow dining services to be “more financially efficient” at a time of increased budget consciousness and belt-tightening due to lost room and board revenue from pandemic-related declines in students living on campus and paying for meal plans.
“Being financially sound is one of the aims of this transition,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything that would strain the budget, especially in the times that we’re in … That wasn’t the sole driver, but that was something that was analyzed.”
The university’s goal is to be self-operated by July of this year, Hylton said.
University of Florida students are also pushing for change. They want university administrators to commit to a dining services provider -- even another third-party company -- that does not have “a record of human rights abuses,” as they allege Aramark does. The students are also calling for other contract guarantees for dining workers and environmental commitments, according to the boycott coalition’s demands. Rachel Khoury, external vice president of the University of Florida NAACP, which is part of the coalition, said the university would ideally move to a self-operated model to ensure “transparency and accountability” between campus business practices and students, faculty and staff members.
Students initiated the boycott when they realized the university’s contract with Aramark ends in July 2022, Khoury said. They also want to hold President Kent Fuchs accountable for statements and promises he made in the wake of the killing of George Floyd last summer. At that time, the university committed to ending agricultural operations practices that “relied on prison and jail inmates to provide farm labor,” a June 2020 statement from Fuchs said.
“The symbolism of inmate labor is incompatible with our university and its principles and therefore this practice will end,” his statement said.
Khoury said that promise will not resonate with students until the university's ties to Aramark are severed. In her view, the dining services contract compels students who sign up for a meal plan to support "a grotesque system" of corporations profiting from prison operations.
"If you invest in someone that upholds these practices, you’re allowing it to continue," Khoury said.
Chris Collom, a spokesperson for Aramark, said in an email that company workers “often work alongside incarcerated individuals who are designated by corrections agencies to work in kitchens,” but the inmates are not employed by Aramark.
“We work hard to build and implement programs that help incarcerated women and men prepare for careers and re-entry into their communities,” Collom wrote.
“Our work on behalf of institutions of higher learning remains very strong,” said a company statement provided by Collom. “We deliver great value to the universities and students we serve. And, we are happy to share with them more information about our commitment to social justice issues and our work in corrections, as we all work together to address this important societal topic.”
Khoury said UF officials have told coalition leaders that it's not feasible for the university, with about 53,000 students on campus, to pursue a self-operated model. Steve Orlando, assistant vice president for communications, said in an email that the university “is not considering self-op as an option at this time” as it reviews proposals for a new dining services contract.
Laís Santoro and Audrey Ting, student members of Real Food Hopkins, said their university’s decision to shift to self-operated dining on the two campuses came as a surprise. The students began advocating for the university to do so last spring, when they learned the Bon Appétit contract would end next year. But they weren't sure it could happen during the pandemic, Santoro said.
Ting acknowledged that shifting away from the big three dining services providers isn't easy. The companies are known for producing food cheaply and efficiently, she said.
“The current industrial food system, really the only place where it excels is in terms of economic efficiency. It produces lots of food very cheaply and very quickly,” Ting said. “We're trying to shift consumption at universities, which is huge market power, to support producers that embody the values that we would like to see throughout more of a food system.”