In defense of self-operated dining at Brandeis

November 13, 2020

It is a supreme irony that Brandeis promotes its alumnus Angela Davis ’65, one of the most important political prisoners of the 20th century. It is a supreme irony that Brandeis employs professor David Weil (Heller), scholar of outsourced labor and its war against workers. It is a supreme irony that, despite an incomplete and insincere commitment to divest from fossil fuels, Brandeis has taken every effort to cloud the devastating impacts of its investments and budgeting decisions.

And Brandeis’s contract with Sodexo is perhaps the most egregious of these money-dumps. This contract not only charges exorbitant fees from students on campus, but indicates our university’s implicit endorsement of destructive forces it claims to resist. A task force to address “systemic bias” on campus does not erase this financial support for Sodexo, a company that has been a major beneficiary of the private prison industry in the United States, who is notorious for crushing organized labor and who sources food from Koch Foods, a close partner of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and allowed an immigration raid on one of their chicken farms in Mississippi, during which 680 undocumented people were arrested.

Brandeis and Sodexo agreed to end their contract early at the end of the Spring 2020 semester. As was stated before and during the dining vendor presentations, this was motivated in part by their repeated failure to correctly label allergen warnings in dining halls (it’s important to note that Brandeis did not end the contract from any sort of moral clarity, though this in no way diminishes the impacts of this mislabeling). Last semester, the well-advertised dining vendor presentations hosted three “new” companies to replace Sodexo at Brandeis, though each of these new vendors were in fact affiliates of Compass Group or Aramark. Like Sodexo, these two corporations collaborate with federal and private prisons inside and outside of the U.S. In addition, Compass Group and Aramark have invested in U.K. military operations and big food companies like JBS, which participates in the Bolsonaro administration’s burning of the Amazon—a government accused of the ethnocide of Brazil’s Indigenous people. In short, the “alternatives” laid out by the university were interchangeable: Each of these options runs contrary to Brandeis’s rhetoric of social justice.

But this dining model is inadequate even at the most local level. Sodexo, Compass Group and Aramark (whom Sodexo replaced at Brandeis in 2013) all buy their ingredients in bulk from enormous suppliers. Small, local food producers (and especially Black food producers) who aren’t employed by big suppliers get cut out of these deals. There’s damage on campus, too. Sodexo, Compass Group and Aramark all operate through outsourced labor: Sodexo, not Brandeis, is the direct employer of dining hall workers on our campus (many of whom are Black and other people of color). This means that if a dining hall worker has their hours cut, they need to talk with a Sodexo middleman, and Brandeis can avoid taking responsibility.

When just a few suppliers control this much of the food we eat, the students who eat the food are unhappy, the workers who make the food aren’t valued and the people who produce food in our community get overlooked in favor of oligarchic corporations.

There is good news: outsourced dining is not our only option. 

Since Fall 2019, Brandeis Uprooted and Rising has pushed for self-operated dining—something University of Massachusetts Amherst and even smaller universities like Westfield State University have used for some time. Under this model, Brandeis could source food from local producers, treat our dining hall workers more justly and offer more culturally relevant food for its students. Because of COVID, Brandeis extended their Sodexo contract for two more years. But the university ended the last contract early, and, if the administration genuinely cares about social and racial justice on campus, they must end their contract again and institute self-operated dining at Brandeis.

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