WHISNANT: A fresh food start

The University should consider a new food provider or require Aramark to change its policies

On July 1st, Aramark’s dining hall contract will expire. For the first time since 1988, it seems quite possible that the University will have a different food provider. With these contracts under negotiation, the time is right to consider not just the merits of dining hall meatloaf and pizza but also whether or not the current Aramark contract reflects the University’s values. Unfortunately for Aramark and the University, the answer to that question is an emphatic no.

Aramark may or may not provide decent options at the dining halls it serves, but it most certainly does not provide decent options for its employees. For direct employees of the University, there is an $11.30 per hour wage floor plus benefits. Because it is a contractor, however, Aramark can pay its employees as low as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 with no benefits, as there are no specifications in the University’s current contract with them. Such a discrepancy between people who do similar work on Grounds is unacceptable and can easily be reversed through the terms of the next contract. Everyone who works full time on Grounds should be paid a similar decent wage, and the University shouldn’t hide behind the contracts it has negotiated in order to avoid this policy.

At the very least, any new contract negotiated with Aramark should seriously address auditing their workplace policies. It is currently so difficult to know exactly how bad conditions for Aramark’s workers are because the University doesn’t release any information on wages and benefits, racial and gender demographics, or even how many employees contractors like Aramark have. With a new contract under negotiation, it is well within the University’s power to reverse this policy and shed some light on the make-up and treatment of all those who work here.

Beyond these bread-and-butter workplace issues, the environmental policies of Aramark are somewhat dubious as well. The current contract with Aramark specifies that its meat and other food products must meet USDA health standards, but it does not specify any conditions for how the meat must be raised or acquired. If this information were public knowledge, there would be more pressure on Aramark to provide humanely-raised meat and locally grown agricultural products to minimize the environmental and social side-effects that come with the mass production of food.

While the availability of this information would be a significant improvement on the status quo, our next dining hall contract should be with a company that is not only committed to transparency but also to actually supporting sustainable agriculture and food distribution. Just because Aramark has so far not released any details about how the food they serve is acquired or raised, doesn’t mean that they cannot be pressured into reversing some of their policies by an institution as powerful as the University — or that the University is incapable of finding another contractor who is in fact willing to step up to the plate on these issues. As with the wage issues, the power to change the status quo is within the University’s power even if it acts like it isn’t.

These foundational labor and environmental conditions are the most crucial value issues that must be addressed in the next contract, but there are also several administrative policies that illustrate Aramark’s frustrating lack of transparency. For instance, there is no cash equivalent to meal exchanges. A hamburger and a chicken sandwich may cost the same to produce, but a meal exchange typically only covers one or the other. Such a policy is illogical and leaves students in the dark about why the decision is made to include one item and not the other. The times and conditions of meal exchanges also frequently change to the point where it is hard for students to keep track of the exact details in order to make financially responsible decisions with their money. Limiting the frequency of such changes or at least sharing information about them well in advance would go a long way to improving the financial well-being of our student body.

From a gravely serious to a practical day-to-day level, the University’s contract with Aramark leaves much to be desired. Despite the status quo bias in this situation, the University has an enormous amount of negotiating power to set dining hall policies consistent with the egalitarian and environmentally conscious community it strives to be. It’s not unreasonable to demand change for the University’s food provider; it’s unreasonable that it’s been over 20 years since the University seriously considered other choices. When it comes to how our food is prepared, the University can and must do better.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.

Published February 26, 2014 in Opinion

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