By Hai Vo
Five summers ago, University of California Irvine Dining & Hospitality signed a multi-million dollar contract with Aramark, one of the largest national and international food service companies, to extend operations from pre-existing residential dining halls to all retail dining locations except for one coffee cart near the Physical Sciences. Aramark “provides a range of food, facility, and other support services to approximately 500 colleges and universities”, allowing for a single source for development of dining and facility management. This single source, a monoculture of sorts, would soon ripple challenges to all stakeholders in our food system – the environment, food producers, consumers, animals, and communities.
Reading over the 28-page document, the agreement is between the “University” (Regents of the University of California) and the “Contractor” (Aramark Educational Services). The contract spans for nearly a decade from August 15, 2004 to June 30, 2014. Within this span, UCI Dining only handles with one contractor as opposed to individual businesses, co-ops, consortiums, or farmers, as they did pre-2004. According to a 2006 article “Aramark: The New Bully on Campus” in UCI’s Jaded Magazine, Ray Giang, then-ASUCI Executive President of Administrative Affairs, noted that “along with the benefits of consolidation fiscal stability and sheer convenience Aramark provided, ‘to be honest, the University gets a bigger kickback, too.”
Hing notes the unjust labor practices that Aramark has had a reputation for, and early looks into the contract have been tested and challenged. “Many full time Aramark employees qualify for public assistance and rely on Medi-cal, low-income housing, and other social programs” in which they are “not afforded the same rights as UC service employees” and prohibited from “organizing or unionizing for higher wages”. Under Section 4A of the contract, “all such employees are employees of the Contractor”. On January 17, 2006, UCI students rallied for insource service workers. According to the American Federaion of State, Countu, and Municipal Employees, “student protestors circled the flagpoles at noon, waved picket signs and heatedly changed their disapproval of the maltreatment of UCI Irvine’s minority workers.” Two months later, Chancellor Michael Drake began dialogue for an in-sourcing agreement for Food Service and Grounds Workers.
Labor challenges have also been seen not only at UC Irvine, but at other colleges, as well. At Duke University, Minnesota Daily writer John Hoff chronicaled the difficulties universities have with contracting to externals food management companies like Aramark. Their Dining Services Director, according to Hoff, “admit
the parameter id is missingbring[ing] Aramark to campus was a mistake.” These mistakes included poor and tasteless service, high food prices, and apathetic responses to demands. From 2004-2006, the student government and the Student Dining Advisory Committee “voted ‘no confidence’ in Aramark.”
Aramark was ranked number one in its industry in FORTUNE magazine’s 2006 list, consistently ranking as “one of the two three admired companies in its industry as evaluated by peers and industry analysts”.
Sympathizing or not, all the dots don’t line up right.
There are some intriguing notes about UCI Dining’s contract with Aramark.
1. In Section A (General Provisions), M (Ecological Issues), the contract states that “The Contractor is encouraged to be away of the legitimate concerns of the campus community regarding the preservation of the ecological balance in nature, and the impact of the Contractor’s business on the environment.” How is this measured? While one may seem that business is good as any each day, are there imbalances caused by the Contractor?
2. Aramark must employ the following food standards (Section 3A):
“No veal products”? “South American Continent”? Where did they get that from? If you were put this last side-by-side to one that contains certifications like “Grown or Raised within 250 miles from Campus”, “Fair Trade Direct Purchasing”, “USDA Organic”, “Certified Humane”, and “Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Guide ‘Best’ Choices”, it’d be night and day.
3. Within the decade, “ARAMARK shall make a financial commitment to the University in an amount of $2,600,000 (the ‘Financial Commitment’) for food service facility renovations and for the purchase and installation of food service equipment, area treatment, signage, temporary structures for service and other costs associated with the new Student Center and other retail locations for the Campus Food Service Program on Client’s premises.” (Section 3B) Has any of this financial capital been committed to sustainable food efforts?
4. Under Section 3C, “Eating Utensils”, the “Contractor shall provide each customer with high quality disposable plastic eating utensils”, “each customer shall be provided with two napkins”, and “cups and plates may be of either Styrofoam or high quality paper”. Styrofoam and plastic seen in our dining halls are non-biodegradable, causing harm in all levels of the ecocentric food system. While some retail dining locations have provided biodegradable corn-starch to-go containers, it is ostensibly imperative to see it uniform throughout campus. In addition, providing each customer with napkins becomes a behavioral mechanism. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I can do without the large-size bag, three plastic spoons, two paper napkins, and Styrofoam cup and plastic lid for my 16 oz. three-bean chili. I paid for the chili, not the superfluous by-products that will eventually go in the landfill.
5. “The Contractor”, seen in Section 4H, “shall provide adequate training for its employees at all levels of the operations.” As the issue of sustainable food systems increases, it will be important to bring to the table all stakeholders to open the dialogue and become participatory actors in the endeavor.
6. I’m sure students think about and often wonder to change the prices for the food they purchase. Under Section 5B, University members can do just that. Price changes can be proposed in writing by July 31st of each year “with justification and/or documentation which validates the request”. Upon approved validation on August 15, the prices become effective the first of September.
Throughout the past five years, the University of California has drafted “Procedures for Implementation of UC Food Service Policy”. UC campuses are mandated to “source from producers who pay minimum wage, or higher, to workers, as required by state and federal law, and who provide safe workplaces, including protection from chemical exposure, and provision of adequate sanitary facilities and rinking water for workers, as quired by state and federal law”.
Preferences, under a graded criteria, include buying local, certified organic, Certified Humane Raised & Handled (CHRH), sustainable seafood, direct, certified Fair Trade, and worker-supportive food products. The procedures include other measure including waste reduction, water conservation, energy efficiency, and much more.
Aramark has adopted a “Green Thread” into their everyday business operations by reducing their environmental footprint while operationally delivering exceptional results. Within it, they’ve adopted the following principles, or “pillars”: sustainable food, green buildings, waste stream management, responsible procurement, energy & water conservation, and transportation.
Arguments have been made for and against our current contract with Aramark. De facto monopoly. Streamlined processes. Low costs for students. Low-quality food.
Whether or not we realize it, the following is fact. Students pay for their tuition, and students pay for their food. The question becomes a more qualitative one – How does a university, like UC Irvine with 31,000 campus community members, sustain its food system? As you’ve read, there are three varied standards for food system management at UCI – the original contract, the UC Policy on Food Practices, and Aramark’s “Green Thread”. Which one to follow?
Unless a food revolution on the UCI campus takes place, for which I don’t know the practicality of the matter, how can UCI Dining and Aramark best practice environmentally- and ecologically-sound measures to ensure a sustainable nature of feeding its community?