Better Food By 2020?

University Senate’s condemnation latest in a history of problems with Aramark

Artwork by Stevie Lacher

Artwork by Stevie Lacher

Out of the many reasons to come to the University of Minnesota, food is not usually at the top of the list for students.

Earlier this month, both the University Senate and University Student Senate have passed a resolution condemning Aramark and threatening to not renew its contract in 2020 if the company doesn’t respond in some manner by the start of 2018, according to the Minnesota Daily.

The resolution was the culmination of an investigation done by the Student Senate Consultative Committee (SSCC) in the fall of 2016. The investigation found that the University had identified problems with Aramark as early as 1999 and that many of those problems have yet to be solved.

The Senate bodies cited problems such as poor food quality, high cost of meal plans, and mistreatment of employees as part of the reasoning for its resolution.

The resolution also called for more student representation in Aramark’s decisions with the University and asked that similar bodies, including the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) and Council of Graduate Students (COGS), pass similar resolutions. An advisory panel will also be created to vet dining service procedures more thoroughly, according to the resolution.

A survey conducted in March by MSA revealed that over half of respondents dubbed their experience with dining hall food as of “not high enough quality.” At a required starting meal plan rate of over $1,800 a semester, it is not difficult to understand why students might be upset at mediocre food.

A difficult issue lies underneath, however. The University renewed its contract with international food provider Aramark in 2008 despite concerns ranging from poor food quality to ethical violations against its employees.

Likewise, the resolution for 2017 is similar in its language. Similar complaints were made, including expensive meal plans, substandard quality of food, and staff mistreatment. Unlike the first resolution, however, this poses a threat to Aramark in the form of major ramifications should the company not respond adequately, including the loss of a $50,000 bonus allocated to the company for meeting its benchmarks set by the University.

Aramark has faced scrutiny elsewhere in recent years. The state of Michigan ended its contract with the food provider in 2015 after a litany of problems while providing food for the state prison system, including maggot infestations, staff misconduct, and meal shortages. Similar concerns have been raised in other areas of the country where Aramark provides food, including Philadelphia, where a racial discrimination lawsuit was filed against the company in 2000, and in Danville, Kentucky, where poor food allegedly caused a prison riot in 2009.

Other companies that have the manpower to keep up with the needs of students come with ethical problems that are just as large as those of Aramark. Sodexo, for instance, has been embroiled in multiple scandals over the past decade, including reaching a $20 million settlement with the state of New York in 2010 for overcharging school districts that it had supplied food to, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. The Compass Group, meanwhile, has been involved in fraud accusations by its subsidiaries and underpaying employees.

The University had a self-operated dining service prior to signing with Aramark, but it proved to be a financial pitfall, and, if re-implemented, it could raise the already expensive meal plan prices students currently oppose.

Question marks about Aramark’s service have been long-standing, and the Minnesota Daily and others have done multiple investigations into Aramark’s practices at the University. An investigation in 2005 by the Daily revealed, among other things, possible mob connections tied to the company. Another Daily investigation in 2008 found malpractice between Aramark and its employees, including a paycheck manipulation practice known as “time-shaving,” hostile work environments, and a high turnover rate.

Regardless, there are some who are confident that Aramark will be able to respond positively to the resolution, including University President Eric Kaler.

“Their contract is coming up in the not-too-distant future,” Kaler said in a recent interview with the Daily. “I expect them to be able to respond to our concerns.”

Aramark has also responded to the resolution, saying that it is constantly polling campuses on how to improve, and that the ethical concerns raised are nothing more than a “smear campaign” against the company, according to spokesperson Karen Cutler.