At the end of this school year Brandeis’ contract with Sodexo, our current dining service provider, will end. Brandeis is soliciting student input in order to shape our dining for next year and the future. This opportunity for input is a rare one. Contracts with companies like Sodexo, and its comparable companies Aramark and Compass Group (“The Big Three”—together operating 70 percent of college dining) rarely grant agency to their consumers. Have you ever felt agency in what is served in the dining hall? Have you ever felt agency over Sodexo’s complicity in and upholding of white supremacy such as its service of private prisons and immigrant detention centers? Have you ever felt agency over Sodexo’s connection to I.C.E. raids and the burning of the Amazon in its supply chain? For me, the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal “no.” When our university has a contract with a company in the dining vendor oligopoly, the voice of the community is lost, in favor of the voice of the company. Together, we can take advantage of this opportunity and push for a true alternative.
Of the colleges that made Princeton Review’s “Best Campus Food” list, all are independently operated—none are contracted to one of the Big Three. Many of these dining frameworks emphasize sustainability for the environment and for the local community. Their food is often locally sourced, supporting farmers and vendors in the area. To dispel potential skepticism over the feasibility of this project, I would like to highlight a few nearby examples.
If there is concern over the interaction between our workers, their union contract and independent dining, we can look at the successful relationship between these groups within Tufts’ and Harvard’s celebrated independent dining frameworks. Both Tufts’ and Harvard’s service workers are part of UNITE HERE Local 26, the same union that represents dining workers at Brandeis. The union has experience negotiating and cooperating with independent university dining programs. In fact, the union is able to negotiate more collaboratively and symbiotically with dining hall management when the management itself has autonomy and is not shifting responsibility to a massive, corporate, bureaucratic third party. Furthermore, our service workers have been unionized for over 40 years and have successfully participated in Brandeis’ independent dining program, Brandeis’ conversion to Aramark and Brandeis’ conversion to Sodexo. The management of working conditions at Brandeis receives zero benefit from Sodexo management. In fact, our workers’ conditions have been harmed by third party management. The service workers who worked for Brandeis through Brandeis’ transitions from Brandeis Dining to Aramark to Sodexo have articulated to me and the rest of Brandeis Labor Coalition that Brandeis Dining absolutely had the best working conditions of the three phases.
If there is concern over transitioning from Sodexo to an independent dining framework, we can look at Westfield State University, a nearby school of comparable size to Brandeis, which, as of 2016, “as a part of a larger commitment to healthy, sustainable and delicious foods, made the decision to switch from a contract food service provider to self-operation. As a self-operated dining program, Westfield State will enjoy greater autonomy with respect to menu and service,” according to its website. The contract food service provider they left by the wayside was Sodexo. Westfield State also, importantly, retained its workers through the transition, just as Brandeis has in its previous vendor transitions. Furthermore, if there is concern over the financial feasibility of this project, we can see Westfield State, a school with far less money (Brandeis’ endowment is 175 times higher than Westfield State’s), as just one of many crucial counterexamples.
If there is concern over the availability of food to source locally from, we can point to the obvious counterpoint that Waltham is filled with restaurants and local businesses which are often under threat of being pushed out, and also the fact that each of the aforementioned examples source from nearby farms, in addition to nearby restaurants. University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example, sources from over 100 nearby farms, according to their website. UMass Amherst has been awarded Princeton Review’s Best College Dining award four years in a row. Their strategy is to “focus on quality ingredients and meals, customer service, student health and wellness, customization options, an appreciation of global influences and modern eating trends, and creating community on campus,” as said on their website. Each of the tenets of their strategy are, notably, solutions to complaints that have been made at Brandeis. Brandeis’ desire to cut ties with Sodexo has been attributed to poor labeling and autonomy over the food, poor customization with respect to dietary restrictions, lacking cultural diversity or food reminiscent of tradition at all, and poor quality of ingredients.
Food has the potential to create community, connect us to our traditions and land and nourish us for our endeavors. At Brandeis right now, the Sodexo food we eat comes from exploited farmers, exploited land, is devoid of any connection to the cultural diversity of our community and is constantly accused of mislabeling products and serving food of poor quality. Brandeis must divest from companies which do not fit our values, like Sodexo, Aramark and Compass. Brandeis must invest in our community. Our university has an obligation to prevent the gentrification of our neighborhood, and we can invest in that mission through the support of our local businesses.
If you would like to know more about the harms of dining hall companies and the potential for independent dining at Brandeis, Brandeis Labor Coalition is hosting a workshop on Nov. 7 in Schwartz 103 from 8 to 10 p.m., in collaboration with the Boston chapter of the grassroots organization Uprooted and Rising. If you would like to submit your opinion on the dining proposal to the university, you can do it at https://slate.brandeis.edu/register/diningservicesrfp.