On April 14, Brandeis announced that we will be transitioning to a new dining vendor. The university will be switching from Sodexo to Harvest Table (A subsidiary of Aramark). As members of the Brandeis community who have been eating Sodexo’s “food” for a year now, we wanted to weigh in on the decision.
Vincent’s thoughts: A dining vendor has a remarkable power over a student body’s academic performance. They directly control or otherwise strongly influence the nutrition of most students, their ability to get proper sleep and rest, the ability for a student to walk uninterrupted to their classes and the mental health of students (though this list is far from exhaustive). This power over a student body is as terrifying as it is aggressively protected. The only other entity that has the ability to influence how a dining vendor exerts its power is the University itself, and even then, that influence is limited.
Sodexo, the corporation, was mostly negligent of the responsibilities that are inextricably linked with the power it held on this campus. It didn’t care much for proper nutrition of the food it provided to the University and the students. Their food, as we are all painfully aware, can be so bad as to cause students to outright skip meals to avoid eating it. Even if it’s not an “off day” for Sodexo, we have also all been indiscriminately and unpredictably hit with the stomach affliction affectionately referred to as the “Sherman Shits” (or alternatively “Brandeis Runs”). Needless to say, this all has universally negative and variably significant impacts on student mental health: poor nutrition has a direct impact on mental and physical health. Skipping meals has a debatably worse impact than consistently poor nutrition. Certainly, dreading the consumption of food cannot be good for a student’s mental state. Rather than improving this situation, Sodexo instead saw fit to spend the money to put Kiwibots underfoot– increasing congestion on walkways and draining out bank accounts even further. Sodexo’s actions have largely contributed to an increased baseline stress level on campus, which takes a toll on sleep and sleep quality– which ultimately leads to a potentially significant impact on academic performance. (As much as I would love to, I have no reliable way to track sleep and academic performance while controlling for quality of food as a study on this campus–yet). Sodexo Corporation’s actions on this campus are revealing of their true intentions: to make as much money as possible. This should come as no surprise; they are a multinational corporation.
Now, to address the reason I say “Sodexo the Corporation” rather than simply “Sodexo”: The actions of Sodexo, the Corporation are not the responsibility of the Brandeis dining workers and lower level Sodexo employees who work at Brandeis. These people consistently do their best for the student body, and make the most of being set up to perform poorly. They have an outsized positive reflection on Sodexo, the Corporation– a reflection which I argue Sodexo, the Corporation does not fully deserve. The only other entity who could have offset Sodexo, the Corporation’s actions was Brandeis itself–by paying more money for a higher tier of food service. Many may argue that this is what should have been done. I, however, am not so sure–based on what we have seen, I strongly suspect that the price increases would not have been proportional to an increase in food quality. I also would guess that the increase in cost would likely have trickled down to the students–an increase we can ill afford. Nonetheless, I am compelled to note: I have no reliable way to concretely confirm or deny either of these suspicions.
Many of the problems Sodexo brought with them are leaving with them. We retain one of the best things about the Brandeis Dining experience: the staff who we see every day, and who do their best with food that is otherwise effectively inedible. However–they are also taking with them what seems like a remarkably competent everyday leadership team that is here at Brandeis–individuals like Nolan Reese and Nicole Caliendo, the dietitians and Alex Zolotov, who (from my understanding) had a role in overseeing special events at the dining halls as well as being the marketing specialist– and all of whom, in my personal experience interacting with them throughout the year, do genuinely care for Brandeis Students–students they feel a responsibility to as “their students”. These individuals are Sodexo employees, and presumably will not be with us at Brandeis next year. To them, I wish them all the best with their future endeavors, and I thank them for making the food we eat every day bearable. Additionally, I applaud the culture they promoted of hosting special food nights at the Dining Halls–at those there was some of the best food I have had here, and more than once I found myself enjoying the entirety of my meal–food, company and atmosphere. (Usually, I only enjoy my company and the atmosphere of the dining hall).
In light of all this, I should be excited to get a change in dining vendor. Indeed, I would be, if we were switching to a self-dining model. However, we are instead swapping Sodexo out for Harvest Table, who will have a tenure longer than almost everyone currently in their undergraduate at Brandeis will be here for. Harvest Table all but promises to bring the same set of baseline problems and stressors to the Brandeis student body: questionable nutrition and all the impacts that come with that. (Notably, however, there will be no Kiwibots–so the Rabb Steps will retake their crown as the foremost tripping hazard on Brandeis campus).
Now–we will retain the outstanding dining hall staff we currently work with. The leadership team that will be here on the ground is a mystery; I hope that they will be effective, competent and caring. The food is, by all firsthand accounts I have, at or slightly higher than the quality of that of Sodexo, the Corporation’s food. It is my express hope that we will, at minimum, stay where we are right now. I also think that that’s very likely. Unfortunately, I am markedly less hopeful for a significant increase in food quality, especially once the novelty of a new vendor wears off. In light of this, I strongly encourage you to say an extra thank you to the dining workers you say every day–as they are where the true strength of Brandeis Dining lies: in it’s people who see us as their students, rather than the multi-deca-billion dollar corporations who see us as their customers.
Cooper’s thoughts: One day, I was sitting in my room in Usen Hall and I heard a tour group pass through Massell. One of the students who was touring asked the guide, “how’s the food?” The guide responded by saying that it “isn’t your mom’s cooking.” That’s true, my mom generally doesn’t serve undercooked chicken to me every day. With Brandeis’ switch from Sodexo to Harvest Table, students can hopefully get at least marginally higher quality food when they go to the dining halls. I’ve eaten Harvest Table’s food once before, when I visited a close friend of mine at Elon University in North Carolina. Harvest Table is Elon’s dining vendor, and the food was surprisingly not bad. However, I have a few concerns about Harvest Table as a company.
Harvest Table is a subsidiary of Aramark, and is led by the former Vice President of Aramark. That name may sound familiar, as Aramark’s history is filled with scandals. In Jackson, Michigan maggots have been found in Aramark food. A former Aramark Supervisor was convicted on a felony charge of “solicitation to commit assault with intent to cause great bodily harm” when they attempted to hire an inmate to attack another inmate. Aramark has also been accused of underfeeding prisoners. Aramark has also been linked to a Clostridium difficile colitis outbreak because they used cheaper cleaning products and reduced staffing levels at Greater Niagara General and Welland sites. C. Diff, as it’s commonly known, is a food-borne bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, stomach pain and dehydration.
Harvest Table isn’t Aramark. They haven’t been accused of the same atrocities that their parent company has. But, the fact that a former Aramark higher-up runs Harvest Table and the fact that Harvest Table is still technically under Aramark’s control give me pause. Brandeis’ last dining services provider, Sodexo, wasn’t perfect either. Sodexo has settled lawsuits over denying Black employees promotions, horse DNA found in their “beef” and has elicited a great deal of invective from the Brandeis community over the quality of their food.
I’m the first person to say that Brandeis needs to move on from Sodexo. Their food often violates the eighth amendment of the United States’ Constitution. But, moving to an “independent division” of a scandal-laden company whose food is probably not that much better than Sodexo’s is not the right choice. I hope that Harvest Table can be better than Sodexo, but I don’t have too much confidence in our next dining vendor.