Recently, I visited some high school friends at the University of Georgia. While there, I got to explore the campus of another flagship university, and that included trying the food. As fellow first-years, my friends also had meal plans and ate the majority of their meals in dining halls. But I was shocked to find that I actually enjoyed the food, something I cannot say about the University. Surely there is a good explanation, I thought at the time, and there is — the University’s decision to choose the Aramark Corporation has negatively impacted the student dining experience, and may even be unethical.
Last fall, I wrote a column detailing why the University’s dining experience is unaffordable and lacks nutritional value, and the continued partnership with Aramark makes future improvements seem unlikely. As part of its contract with Aramark, the University has made some investments into healthy options for students that also come at a low cost — but only some. The Castle — a University restaurant that promises sustainable practices and plant-based options — was revamped and earned Green Restaurant certification, a major step forward for nutritional options. Regardless, cost is still a factor as an All-Access Meal Plan, which all first-year students are required to purchase, runs from $2,890-$3,130 per semester. That figure will soon go up as the Board of Visitors recently voted to increase prices for meal plans, in addition to also increasing tuition. But past the issue of affordability, quality comes into question as well. A few weeks after first sitting down to write this column, I was served bagels with mold on them at Runk Dining Hall. A lot like University dorms, most food grows mold, but a A $3,000 meal plan should come with higher standards than one restaurant dedicated to healthy eating.
A comparable meal plan to our All-Access plan at the University of Georgia runs at about $2,297, around $700 cheaper than meal plans here. And here, the $3,000 is a required purchase on top of tuition, while at Georgia, students have a choice of several meal plans, or no meal plan, to figure out what best suits them. Additionally, in-state and out-of-state tuition is far cheaper at Georgia than here, making the cost of a meal plan an even less burdensome expense. U.Ga., who does not contract with Aramark, is able to offer more expansive hours at their five dining halls, effectively allowing them to pay less for more. The Aramark contract the University has offers comparatively limited hours across all dining halls — a relationship where students are charged more money for fewer benefits.
Even as concerns continue over the partnership, Aramark’s contract with the University is only growing longer. In 2014, the University and Aramark agreed to a 20-year contract that accompanies a promised multi-million dollar investment into dining facilities across Grounds. That move did not go without criticism, with a 2015 editorial in The Cavalier Daily citing extremely unethical practices in prisons — serving garbage, dog food, and worms to inmates — and paying workers only the minimum wage despite continued fiscal success. This poor conduct does not come as a surprise given Aramark’s track record. In one Michigan prison and two Ohio prisons, maggots were repeatedly found near food to the point where the states fined the corporation $200,000 and $130,200 respectively for the incidents, a mere slap on the wrist for Aramark, which brought in $16.3 billion last year. The University’s continued partnership with the company is effectively condoning Aramark’s unethical actions, sending students a clear message that ethics and health are not a major concern.
It is not hard to recognize the appeal of Aramark’s services for universities and prisons. Aramark saved the State of Ohio $13 million in 2014 by offering the ability to outsource dining services at a lower cost — partly through paying workers low wages and lowering costs-per-meal for prisoners. These cost cutting measures proved a valuable investment for the state, as it likely prevented one correctional facility from closure. Here at the University, Aramark invested $20 million to build the Pavilion XI food court and the Fresh Food Company in Newcomb Hall as part of the 2014 contract renewal. But we see time and time again that these tactics of allowing Aramark to invest for a company to cut costs reduces the quality of the product received. The State of Florida cut ties with Aramark in 2008 after an audit showed the corporation had skimped on meals as a way to cut costs and increase its profit margin, while still overcharging the state. The Florida government is not the only institution to cut ties with Aramark — other notable former clients include the Wichita Falls Independent School District in Texas and Yale University. The University — an institution with a $14.5 billion endowment — should follow the lead of the other institutions and reconsider its contract with this major corporation that has garnered a reputation for its serious ethical and legal violations.
Jim Ryan’s 2030 ‘Great and Good’ Plan aspires to have the University be the number one public school in the country. Progress is certainly being made as new schools and facilities are constructed and the number of undergraduate applicants continues to increase. But students at the aspiring number one public university should arrive on Grounds and feel supported by the dining choices they make, not concerned about mold, maggots or ethics. Unless the banner on the University’s dining website wants to read “number one in education, number 1,248 in food,” something needs to change. Much like inmates at correctional facilities in the Midwest, students are people that deserve quality food. The University has an opportunity to improve in an area where it is lacking, but it must do the work in order to be truly great and good.
Ford McCracken is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.