Aramark Correctional Services plans to cut ties with the Florida Department of Corrections in September. It will serve its last meal to Florida prisoners on Jan. 9, 2009 due to the 90-day termination clause in its contract.

Aramark had the contract for a turbulent seven years, marked by fines and wrangling over budget cuts and profit margins. Now the department must find a new provider or figure out a way to feed inmates itself. Its challenges may shed new light on UF’s relationship with the company, which is set to continue through at least 2019.

Aramark won the DoC contract in 2001 as part of a larger drive by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to privatize government functions in Florida. “The state rushed into it, and like most shotgun weddings, the marriage has been pretty tortured,” Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, told the St. Petersburg Times.

Aramark secured the deal with the help of lobbyist Courtney Cunningham, who is now a member of UF’s Board of Trustees. Cunningham was appointed to the board in 2005 and remained registered as a lobbyist representing Aramark Correctional Services through at least October 2007, according to state disclosure forms. He does not appear in the lobbyist database for 2008. UF began taking bids on its food service contract in November 2007.

Aramark appears to have been driven away by a combination of budget cuts and food price inflation, which made it nearly impossible to turn a profit as the prison system demanded higher standards for quality of service. That means it’s unlikely Florida prisons will attract another private food provider. They’ll likely have to handle food service themselves, which a report issued last year by the department’s inspector general said will help cut costs.

The department might lack the in-house expertise because Aramark took over the jobs of state employees charged with feeding prisoners.

UF faces similar troubles: a shrinking budget, increasing demands for better quality and costly sustainability initiatives, and an overtaxed Business Services Division with limited resources. UF took nearly a year to finalize a new contract with Aramark, which had already been on campus for 12 years. Switching providers, let alone bringing food service back under university control, could have overwhelmed an already spread-thin Purchasing Department.

UF could have had to do without a food service provider on campus if Aramark decided to terminate its new contract. People have to eat, but we would only have a few months to work out an alternative. That’s probably why Aramark gets such favorable terms from the university: we need them.

But the American food economy is changing, and as oil gets more expensive, it will likely have to change more.

UF is in a unique position to help figure out how Florida can cope with a changing food economy. We’re at the heart of one of the most productive agricultural states in America, blessed with a 12-month growing season. The City of Gainesville boasts a wildly popular community garden program.

The Gainesville Sun recently quoted Stefanie Hamblen, editor of local gardening guide Hogtown HomeGrown, saying, “gardeners have begun calling their plots freedom gardens — as in freedom from oil.” Not to mention the freedom that comes with guaranteed access to tastier, more nutritious food that doesn’t depend on the whims of corporations without roots in our community.

We’ll likely need to develop a sustainable food program alongside Aramark or in cooperation with them, at least for the time being. With a few simple changes to the existing contract, student-run, sustainable enterprises can begin to compete with Aramark on campus, develop unique local concepts under its guidance, or help supply its food. We can guarantee a market for local farmers and provide them with cutting-edge research on sustainable farming methods.

Environmental writer Bill McKibben once pondered whether it was possible “that there’s something inherently destructive about a globalized free-market society—that the eternal race for efficiency, when raised to a planetary scale, damages the environment, and perhaps the community, and perhaps even the taste of a carrot? Is it possible that markets, at least for food, may work better when they’re smaller and more isolated?“

By rediscovering how to feed ourselves, universities like our own can begin to develop answers to those questions.