In a new addition to an existing string of offenses, it has recently come to light that Aramark — the same company that serves food at the University — served garbage to inmates at a prison in Michigan. More specifically, prisoners at Saginaw Correctional Facility have been served food that was previously thrown in the trash. In the past, Aramark has also underfed inmates and fed them dog food, worms and scraps of food from old meals, as well as sold generally degraded qualities of food to prisons.
This past summer, the University renewed its contract with Aramark and set the contract for 20 years. This decision came with significant concerns regarding wages, as Aramark can pay its employees as little as the federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — and, since they are contract employees, they are not eligible for benefits from the University.
While we have yet to hear of negative altercations between Aramark’s U.Va.-based employees and the company itself, Aramark has not treated its workers well in the past. It has refused to bargain with unions, withheld union dues, avoided paying unemployment insurance taxes and allegedly pocketed workers’ tips and service charges.
The University’s contract with Aramark is a business, and not ethical, contract. And in the world of business transactions, there will often be trade-offs between low-cost solutions and efficiency and the moral character of a company. In Aramark’s case, however, the trade-offs are simply not worth it.
With a history of gross mistreatment of a population of consumers — i.e., inmates — and a history of mistreating employees, there is, at this point, very little to be said for Aramark. It has, to its credit, arranged to take some positive steps for our University — including investing $20 million in improvements and renovations for dining facilities and committing to a $70 million escrow fund from which interest can be pulled to fund University initiatives.
Such financial benefits could not come from a company less successful than Aramark, nor, according to Pat Hogan, the University’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, could they have happened without extending as long a contract as the University did. These are serious gains for the University. But, as outlined above, they come alongside serious, larger costs.
Aramark’s investments are a financial incentive for the University to uphold this existing contract, and at this point, with a contract already set, it is highly unlikely the University would undermine its relationship with Aramark and break that contract. So perhaps this can serve as a lesson for the future, if nothing can be done about the contract now. The University is not just a business — it is also an educational institution and a major employer in the Charlottesville area. While it can be swayed by financial decisions, it should not be constrained by them when ethical issues as egregious as Aramark’s come into play. Other schools, like Yale University and Hampden-Sydney College, have ended contracts with Aramark, even, in Hampden-Sydney’s case, after 56 years of partnership.
Given other schools’ ability to move away from Aramark, it appears to be financially feasible for us to contract with a different company or even internally provide food services without contracting out. In Aramark’s case, ethical qualms are enough to justify finding a different source for our food.