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Sodexo, but not your way

By Anindita Chanda & Daniel Freedman

Section: Opinions

April 28, 2017

Brandeisians believe in “truth even unto its innermost parts,” so let’s talk honestly about the food. Brandeis’ meals are catered and controlled entirely through outsourcing to Sodexo—a company that cares more about its bottom line than the means of profit. With some notable exceptions, college campuses are not known for their exquisite dining, nor did we expect anything of the sort when coming to Brandeis. However, our gripe with Sodexo has left an awful taste, while Brandeis has turned greedy apologist to partner in a student shakedown akin to highway robbery.

Prior campus regulation allowed students living on-campus to opt out of the predatorily priced meal plan requirement if their housing situation afforded them access to a kitchen. In pursuit of fiscal solvency, common-sense measures have given way to corrupt arm-twisting. Brandeis dissolved the ability of students to effectively afford to use their kitchens, for which they have already paid a premium.

From what we gather from the poorly articulated and publicized administration perspective, the logic in last year’s policy change was to subsidize the renovation of dining halls on the backs of those living on campus. Inherent in this reasoning is the notion that the dining hall patrons are synonymous with the on-campus community. The disconnect is that many of the students who arrange to live in dormitories with kitchens are the very ones least likely to frequent one of Brandeis’ dining establishments.

A further slight is the two-tier pricing explicit in the meal plans offered, a knowing nod to the fact that the subsidization of the dining halls is desired by none but foisted upon a subset of students without a voice. The pricing of plans is informed by the willingness to pay. If we want to live on campus, we must pay the dining hall tax. Thus a commuter or off-campus plan is significantly cheaper despite offering more than a commensurate campus plan, the former listed as “voluntary,” which must make the latter conscripted.

Now how much does it cost? It is not a small expense each of us is expected to bear. The cheapest meal plan that we can purchase to satisfy the on-campus requirement costs $3,350 per year, money that would allow us to make use of the kitchen for which we are already paying. And what exactly do we get with this plan? A prorated analysis values each dining hall meal at over a whopping $17, an egregious price for the quality—considering food from a real restaurant could be afforded for less (including tax, tip and transport). And that analysis is made assuming a generous equivalence of a dollar and a meal point. Buying meals on campus without the plan from dining halls would be far cheaper and afford far greater options; an argument about guaranteeing food availability for students is absurd when the meal plan cost greatly exceeds pay as you go consumption.

Now about that nutritious and delicious Sodexo food. As a disclaimer, we do not intend to invoke a sense of snobbery or haughtiness; a review of food and service is justified when compelling its purchase.

The actual hours of dining hall service do not correspond to the listed hours. Food is served regularly at the stereotypical eating times of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wander into a dining hall between such times and you will find a scant selection—nothing to accommodate the student with a busy schedule or an inconvenient time coming from Charles River. After 2:30 p.m., the majority of lunch foods are removed with the exception of a salad bar that has been exposed to the air all day, a few non-perishable staples and an occasional slice of stale, oily pizza. You will then have to wait until 5 p.m. to find that same entree from lunch, reheated and possibly served in a new sauce, on a good day—unless of course you have the fortune to visit on a parents’ weekend when a half-hearted attempt is made.

Another issue with Sodexo dining is the taste, which is repulsive. Now, this is not the fault of Sodexo employees, who do the best they can with their limited ingredients and exploitative wages. It is rather a systemic issue in which Sodexo, as a business strategy, makes an effort to extort the highest possible prices from students for the cheapest possible food. Now again, we realize we are in college and are not expecting a meal prepared by Gordon Ramsay, but we can distinguish food fit for kennels and food that should be served to human beings. Let’s start with the dishes that are typically served. The pasta station gives the option of an overly fatty alfredo sauce that sits out for so long that you can see the fats separating from the dairy, or a bolognese sauce so thin and watery you can hardly tell anything has solidified over the six-plus hours it has been out. The grilled food station has chicken that was on the griddle long enough to dry and cure the meat, you can taste the cancer as you swallow the burnt crisps that scratch at your throat.

When it comes to the “specials” of the day: Sodexo cycles between serving “South American” food, which is just brown rice from lunch turned red for dinner with a dash of paprika, and serving brisket that is one part indestructible mystery meat and two parts salt. As for vegetarian dishes, they commonly serve either a hodgepodge of flavorless green and yellow squash or random partially boiled vegetables minus the seasonings. We could go on ad infinitum, but our favorite yet is orange quinoa (which is presumably quinoa cooked in orange juice)—and spoiler alert, it actually tastes worse than it sounds.

Now for the health. Our bias is obvious, so we turn to an independent health review of Sodexo written one year ago by DeeAnne Oldham and approved by a team of doctors, and the food has certainly not improved in the time since then. Her report gave Sodexo an F, writing her short answer as, “Sodexo is not healthy. They are a mass-produced food service company with great marketing. The food may sound healthy, but it is heavily processed and high in carbohydrates, fat and chemicals.” And her review of Sodexo practices included the re-use of old food items in new dishes, something we are all too familiar with if we are unfortunate enough to visit a dining hall twice in one day, or even two days in a row.
Brandeis has sold out to a corporate prison supplier to feed its students, and uses the monies there gathered to fund aesthetic renovation—Brandeis being more concerned with superficial looks than the quality therein. Perhaps the underlying plan is to attract more donors to fund the school, but it is a myopic plan to stiff the students, poison their food and then wonder in 30 years why none of them want to donate. Our unwilling donation was in the form of the mandatory meal plan we do not intend to use. Brandeis should expect nothing after extorting its students.

  • Michael Stein

    YES!!! After all these years, someone said it (and said it really well.)

  • Adrienne Hudson Newlon

    This is spot on, on every single point. The question is – what can we do about it?

  • Rachel Feldman

    Our son is Gluten Free and although the staff has been lovely in trying to accommodate his needs, every time he eats in the cafeteria he gets sick. The proteins must be treated with soy or some other chemicals.

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