Amidst controversy, UF renewed its contract with food service provider Aramark.
Flickering across the phone screens of hundreds was toast streaked with formidable stripes of blackened bread crumbs. Questionable vegetable spread of an off-white, thick and clotted texture on top disguising the taste of burnt bread. A bland cup of coffee in accompaniment. These were the breakfast components consumed by Alexis Cave, a first-year computer engineering and psychology major, and her friend looking to fuel one of their final days of the spring semester in the Fresh Food Company dining hall at the University of Florida.
So unsatisfying was this breakfast that Cave was inspired to create a short ‘meme’ video documenting the experience and her resulting disgust. The video, an inside look into the typical food served at the on-campus dining halls at UF, was posted to the unofficial ‘ Swampy Memes for top ten public teens’ Facebook account, which currently boasts 41.1 thousand followers. In the clip, captioned “dining hall expectations vs reality…petition to tear down the dining hall?”, an image of a slice of toast laden with bountiful, colorful toppings such as cucumber, tomatoes and onions flashed across the screen, followed by an image of an artful latte swirling with an intricate foam design. After showing these appealing food items, the screen cut to images of the less-than-comparable food items comprising the dining hall breakfast, with Cave visibly grimacing. The breakfast spread was far from appetizing to Cave, but in Cave’s mind, this was no isolated experience. She said there were multiple times where she had to eat semi-cold food. “Aramark sells their food as high quality,” Cave said, “but often times the food doesn’t taste as expected.”
Cave isn’t the only one with a negative on-campus dining experience. Kendra Ragen, a graduating senior majoring in microbiology, expressed her frustration with the lack of convenient and nutritious food made available to students on campus. “There are virtually zero resources for affordable healthy food on campus,” she said, “except for Krishna, and that’s not even run by the school.”
On the surface, Aramark presents itself as a provider of delectable culinary possibilities all across campus, especially to the unknowing, eager faces flocking to the Fresh Food Company dining hall during Freshman Preview. But behind the scenes, the truth is lurking.
The University of Florida’s contract with food giant Aramark was set to come to an end on June 30, according to the Catering Services Agreement put forth by the University of Florida Business Services Division. Despite the protests of students and workers alike from organizations such as Divest UF, the contract was temporarily renewed for two years. For some, this seemed an all-too-easy solution to postpone addressing the concerns of protesters.
Juan Zapata of Divest UF had a different opinion. “The temporary contract gives us [Divest UF and other protestors] a lot of space to tackle Aramark in the future,” he said. “It gives more time to organize against them.”
“Smith, along with other workers, to feel “more like replaceable cogs than people with lives.”
Divest UF is comprised of members “seeking to disentangle UF from toxic industries and human rights violations” according to its Facebook page. Juan explained that the collective has recently become more active against Aramark. The group has met with representatives from UF’s Business Services Division, such as Jen Moyer. It was in Zapata’s individual meeting with Moyer that he learned the temporary two-year contract would contain the same clauses as the preceding contract and would open up for new bids in December 2020. Zapata is not impressed with this process. “Aramark is being left in the conversation,” he said. “The school isn’t recognizing they are the issue.”
According to the 2016 Gainesville Chamber of Commerce list, Gator Dining Services is the seventh largest employer in the area, with 1,200 employees under its wing. Zapata emphasized that despite Aramark’s prominence in the Gainesville community, it still pays workers only $8.57.
This isn’t the only concern put forth by Divest about Aramark. Zapata discussed the environmental concerns present with the company regarding their treatment of chickens – the main reason, he explained, why FIU booted their contract with Aramark. He also expressed his frustration with the issue of price-gouging in campuses in prisons. “Aramark shouldn’t be profiting off of the prison index,” he said.
“They are also seemingly driven by money,” Zapata said. “Despite the fact that their most profitable financial year ended in September 2018, Aramark cut their contributions to employee 401k’s from 50-60% to 25%. They also didn’t deliver Christmas bonuses to employees who could’ve been reliant on them until January.”
“Our struggle with Aramark is parallel to the struggle with Wendy’s,” he said. “Wendy’s seems to be a bigger focus on campus, as there is national momentum.”
Dharma Santos, a junior environmental science major, will be taking over the head position of Divest UF as Zapata graduates. “As a student you don’t realize what’s going on. You’re invested in pursuing academic endeavors,” she said. “It is up to us to get plugged in, to get included and advocate or fight what our institution is doing. It is disappointing that the institution that is educating us as mindful leaders can’t take initiative [against Aramark],” Santos expressed.
This feeling of frustration was drawn out on March 12 when Divest members attended a meeting facilitated by Eddie Daniels, the Assistant Vice President of the Business Services Division at UF. Students invested in how the Catering Contract is being handled were organized into focus groups representing different interests. Zapata became part of the “off-campus student” group, representing the interests of students who lived off campus but were inclined to eat on campus. Zapata again teamed up with other Divest members to protest Aramark at a Business Services Board Meeting March 25.
Despite these efforts to be heard, Zapata didn’t feel as if his organization’s message was truly accounted for. “I felt as if there was no resolution,” he said. “It is irresponsible for us to have a contract that puts them [Aramark] up in power”.
The Fine Print reached out to Eddie Daniels and Jenn Moyer of the Business Services division at UF, as well as to Jill Rodriguez of Gator Dining Services, for comment.
UF’s dealings with Aramark are bigger than they seem. The problems associated with Aramark have been played out on the national and world platform for years, according to Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News. A former prisoner and an advocate for prisoners rights, Friedmann explained that Aramark “puts profit motivation before providing efficient and nutritional food.” Friedmann continued, “Aramark is a small cog of a much larger wheel of the exploitive private prison industry. This company that provides food services has a horrific track record in providing and exploiting food services to the prison population, which is primarily black and Hispanic. Many are also poor.” Friedmann mentioned the presence of maggots in Ohio and Michigan prisons, as reported by Prison Legal News in their online publication. Other incidents include reports of unsanitary conditions, food poisoning of prisoners, unauthorized food charges, small food portions and workers engaging in sexual misconduct with prisoners. In moving forward towards possible solutions, he explains that the first step “is educating students on what their [Aramark’s] issue is, doing outreach to university administration, documenting problems with the company in the university setting, and recognizing what the company’s experiences have been in terms of exploiting prisoners.” From this point on, Friedmann is confident that students at the University of Florida will be able to join the “uptake on student activism that has mobilized students nationwide” in terms of protesting school involvement with companies engaged in private prison contracts.
Hannah Smith, a UF senior political science major, worked at the Reitz Union Starbucks for two semesters in 2018. Low pay and inflexible scheduling, without taking into consideration her school schedule, were the two main reasons she left the job. Additionally, high customer service standards, continuous changing of middle-management and dismissal of employee input caused Smith, along with other workers, to feel “more like replaceable cogs than people with lives”. This was intensified by the expectation for workers to constantly meet “WEST” standards. WEST refers to a mandatory employee conduct system set in place by Aramark that stands for “Welcome, Eye Contact, Suggestively Sell/Smile, and Thank You”.
“Employees are expected to always WEST even if they have bad days, they are not allowed to frown or to not upsell, even to their friends or professors in line,” said Smith. “It’s emotionally draining, and unfair to expect employees to depersonalize themselves so much.”
While these expectations were sometimes unrealistic in Smith and her co-workers minds, it was difficult for them to even know who to report to about work experiences like these.
“Supervisor after supervisor after supervisor made it difficult to know who was your boss,” she said. “The need for constantly speedier times was stressful for everyone involved”
“UF should not have contracts with companies who disregard humanitarian catastrophes for a quick profit.”
Smith said overnight shifts are often pushed on students already overwhelmed with packed class schedules. She said she often worked 10-hour shifts with a mere 30-minute break in between. Smith labeled these schedules as “detrimental to one’s health.”
“UF should not have contracts with companies who disregard humanitarian catastrophes for a quick profit,” Smith expressed. “I heard that FSU and NYU students had protested against the renewal of contracts with Aramark, and FSU had succeeded. I think if FSU can do it, so can UF.”
Aramark workers at the University of Florida are in the midst of collaborations with the Alachua County Labor Coalition, pursuing the path to becoming unionized. However, the process is in the early stages. Jeremiah Tattersall, a Field Staff member at the North Central Florida Central Labor Council, is serving as the main point-of-contact for the workers.
The University of Florida made an attempt at addressing any issues with Aramark through a campus survey emailed out on March 5 of this year, which sought to collect feedback on the collective dining experiences of students, faculty, and staff. Of course, this method of measuring the satisfaction with the dining halls relied on voluntary feedback and didn’t record the responses of Aramark employees.
However, if UF decided to terminate their relationship with Aramark, perhaps other companies could fulfill the school’s needs. Chartwells, the company FGCU switched to in 2016, declined to comment at this time on whether the company would pursue a future relationship with UF.
While some schools, such as Florida State University, have switched to Sodexo, Friedmann relayed the idea that the school shouldn’t “look to swap with another company that does the same thing”, citing that while Sodexo doesn’t currently hold any private prison contracts in the United States, it is immersed in such dealings on the international scale, particularly in the United Kingdom.
One possible solution would be to follow in the footsteps of Ithaca College. William Guerrero, Vice President of the Division of Finance and Administration at the institution, spoke on guiding his school’s transition from using food provider Sodexo to moving food operations “in-house”, citing community feedback from students and parents as the driving force behind ultimately arriving at the change. Not only does this change implement a sense of community and independence through partnership with local vendors, but Guerrero explained that the school would enjoy fresher, local food and more vegan, vegetarian, and allergy-free options. Of course, cutting ties with Sodexo was no easy task. Such a transition placed “a lot of new stress on Human Resources, and the existing staff”, and required “a lot of help and support internally and externally.” Of course, it isn’t immediately feasible for the University of Florida to take over all food operations. His advice for implementing a similar change at an institution like the University of Florida? “Overall it is a lot of work and not for all schools but at least it could be an option. The staff is the key. They are the core competency. I assume [the University of] Florida is enormous. Our school is much smaller. But there are many large schools that have been self-operated for many years.”
What will happen in December 2020 and beyond when the current contract with Aramark goes public is up in the air.
“Companies have an obligation to provide ethical and safe workplaces,” said Friedmann. “It is up to student workers and investors in the company, which includes university officials and contracting officials, to hold the company responsible.”
Guerrero builds on this idea, suggesting to “Speak to your current provider. They are good companies. It really depends on the management team. They should listen. You are very important to them. You should be in the driver seat in your needs.”
Will Aramark continue to be in the passenger seat or will the University of Florida take a new highway? •