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Dining services presentations attempt to wow, but ethical issues loom

Sodexo provided free boba tea. Nexdine distributed gift bags and boxes of food. AVI flew out an entire culinary team from Ohio. This week, five corporations held their presentations to take over Brandeis Dining Services when Sodexo’s contract expires at the end of this semester (Sodexo was one of them, it is bidding to renew its current contract). In this, the bidders tried to impress the student body with large food spreads and gifts for attendees. While crowds were sparse, students could often be seen grabbing plates of food and leaving immediately. 


Each of the five dining service providers bidding (AVI, Nexdine, Sodexo, Harvest Table and Bon Appetit) stuck to a similar presentation format. First, an overview of the company, their corporate history and their plans for Brandeis, including new retail locations and new proposals for new menus and stations in Sherman and Usdan. Generous time was allotted to discussions of “people-first” culture and sustainability practices, as well as guaranteeing high quality kosher dining on campus. These presentations closed out with a Q/A section, which was usually dominated by kosher dining questions. During Sodexo’s presentation, students raised concerns about the BiteU app and food quality at Sherman and Usdan, especially what they saw as proliferation of undercooked meats as well as subpar kosher dining experiences. A frequent question at all four presentations the Hoot was able to attend (all but Harvest Table) was whether the bidders would retain the current staff under their union contract. All answered yes to retaining the current staff. 


The dining presentations, while unabashedly corporate in nature, still reflected companies trying to appeal to the Brandeis student body. While these new culinary options offered ranged from serious (such as CHX, a lunch hour Stein chicken sandwich shop proposed by AVI) to trendy (Sodexo’s plan to deliver Guy Fieri’s Flavortown and the Mr. Beast Burger via KiwiBot), the presentations signaled the bidder’s belief that high food quality is of paramount importance to the student body. 


Despite the glamor and high expectations summoned by the presentations, a number of the bidders on the Dining Service contract have complicated ethical histories surrounding their food service work. Out of the five bidders on the contract, three actively profit off providing food or operating in private prisons across the globe. 

Sodexo, under its subsidiary Sodexo Justice Services, operates 89 prisons in 10 different countries, including the UK and Italy. These prisons have been marked by human right’s abuses and reports of violence and poor living conditions. A 2017 BBC documentary about the Sodexo owned and operated Northumberland prison found extreme drug and violence issues. At Addiewell Prison, over 80 grievances are logged a week by prisoners, reportedly mostly about food quality. Sodexo formerly owned a large share in the Corrections Corporation of America, which owns over ½ of US private prisons. They sold their shares in 2001 due to universities dropping their contract as well as anti-prison industrial complex activism.


Harvest Table, while not linked to any prison operations, is a subsidiary of Aramark, a Fortune 500 company, which has been linked to numerous legal and ethical violations due to its prison contracts. The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper, in an article urging the campus to drop Aramark, noted that Aramark fed degraded food and inadequate portions to a prison in Michigan. Aramark was condemned by Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan for providing substandard food that had maggots and caused severe illness to prisoners in a prison near Jackson, Michigan. Additionally, Aramark employees in Ohio were disciplined for inappropriate sexual behavior towards inmates. Aramark’s detention centers in Ireland have also raised controversy. In 2018, Aramark publicly apologized after they refused to feed a sick child from Zimbabwe in a detention facility.


AVI also benefits from providing dining services to private prisons. After pressure from the Wellesley Against Mass Incarceration, Wellesley College dropped AVI as their dining service provider. AVI addressed this in their presentation here at Brandeis, complimenting Wellesley for dialoguing with them and stating they intended to withdraw from the prison system by 2025. While they may have addressed concerns over this, AVI failed to mention in their presentation that their tenure at Wellesley was marked by reports of racist and sexist harassment against dining hall workers. Workers blamed AVI management for racist behavior towards staff as well as sexual harassment towards dining hall workers. In addition, AVI’s tenure suffered from repeated controversy over violating dietary restrictions, putting students’ health at risk. 


These ethical issues speak to larger systemic issues in the food service industry and it’s complicated relationship with the prison industrial complex. Additionally, it also calls into question Brandeis’s commitment to the school’s values of justice and social equality. If the school continues to support and work with dining service providers who benefit from legally and morally wrong practices, it compromises the university’s morals and may lead to a diminishment of our public reputation as a socially progressive institution. As Brandeis chooses a new service provider, ethical and moral standards, not presentation quality, should remain a top priority for both the administration and the student body.

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