Illustrations by Brittany Evans.

Earlier this year, Rachel Tanchak, a freshman at the University of Florida, was having Saturday morning breakfast in the Gator Corner Dining Center. As she moved to pour herself some Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a cockroach scuttled from beneath the cereal container.

Eight years prior, Joseph Vitagliano, a detainee at a correctional facility in Philadelphia, sat eating lunch in his cell. He bit into a scoop of mashed potatoes and felt something sharp cut his mouth. He then spat out a razor-like piece of metal.

Tanchak will likely never know of or meet Vitagliano. But they do have one thing in common: a nasty experience with food service.

 And they’ve both been wronged by the same provider.

UF students know it as Gator Dining, but behind the plastic trays, Classic Fare catering and Starbucks Frappucinos is the Aramark Corporation, the supplier of virtually all food available on campus. In addition to feeding students at
 some 1,500 universities and K-12 schools around the world, Aramark oversees the kitchens in hundreds of North American prisons.

Aramark—along with companies like McDonald’s that use prison labor directly—is part of what is called the prison-industrial complex, a term used to describe how increased prison populations, the result of “tough-on-crime” bills passed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, are exploited by private interests for profit. Aramark’s food service represents just one of the many aspects of prison life that are privatized in the United States, from the phones inmates use to call their families to the websites their loved ones use to send them money.

State prison systems across the country, including those in Florida, have consistently turned to Aramark for cheaper meals, only to end their contracts after experiencing overbilling, health violations, continuous acts of employee misconduct and a general drop in food quality along the way. But the company’s relationship with the University of Florida, which began in 1995, has remained constant.

Aramark began supplying the meals in Florida’s state prisons in 2001. The decision was costly for the Department of Corrections, which lost an estimated $5.6 million in the 2005 fiscal year alone. Aramark switched to cheaper meats against department guidelines, and a 2007 analysis found they significantly reduced the number of inmates being fed. By cutting costs on the supply side, but not reducing the amount it billed Florida for service, Aramark’s profits increased.

“[Aramark is] constantly looking at how they can bring value and service to the university,” Lionel Dubay, director of UF’s Business Services Division, said. “They have been an excellent, excellent partner.”

Auditors suggested the Department of Corrections either change or cancel its contract with Aramark due to its poor service. Several months later, UF made a public bid for food service providers. Aramark was the only bidder.

During the course of their partnership, the state of Florida levied multiple fines against Aramark, culminating in 2008 when Aramark received a fine of $241,499 for multiple contract violations. The fine was larger than any of the previous ones they received in the past seven years’ combined, but the problems continued. That same year, 277 inmates at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution reported becoming sick after eating Aramark chili.

Four months later, Aramark officially broke ties with Florida’s correctional facilities. Then-president of Aramark’s correctional services branch, Tim Campbell, cited “unprecedented food cost inflation” as the reason for the contract’s termination in a letter to the state. Seemingly in direct opposition to the conclusion reached in Florida’s 2007 audit, he wrote “because we value our business relationship of the past, we have foregone price increases while continuing to provide valuable services for some time.”

Despite being aware of these issues, UF renewed its contract in 2009, in part because it had not experienced those challenges.

“[Aramark is] constantly looking at how they can bring value and service to the university,” Lionel Dubay, director of UF’s Business Services Division, said. “They have been an excellent, excellent partner.”

More recently, Aramark’s valuable services have included maggot infestations. In 2014, larvae were found in Jackson, Mich., inches from food trays at one facility and in potatoes at another.

The maggots weren’t limited to Michigan, either. That same year, outbreaks flared up in Ohio, affecting at least four prisons in the span of two months. In its first year of service, Aramark was fined twice by the state of Ohio for the maggots, as well as shortages in food and staff. Ohio also banned 96 Aramark employees from working in its prisons after incidents involving smuggled contraband and employees not showing up to work.

By 2015, two years into its three-year contract, the state of Michigan ended its deal with Aramark after experiencing similar problems as Ohio. On top of smuggling and maggots, an Aramark employee had a member of kitchen staff serve inmates cake that had been gnawed on by rodents. Another Aramark employee allegedly approached an inmate about becoming a murderer for hire.

While UF students might occasionally sidestep a cockroach or two, in 2004, the University of Chicago temporarily closed a dining hall run by Aramark after health inspectors discovered mice carcasses in its kitchen. Between 2010 and 2013, the university failed eight health inspections for problems ranging from flies to improper food storage.

In April 2016, University of Chicago announced that it would replace Aramark with service by Bon Appétit. Notably, Bon Appétit operates under Compass Group, a major food service provider that also contracts with prisons. Student group Fight for Just Food rallied the week following the announcement, calling for the university to stop contracting with companies linked to prison profits and opt for self-operated food services instead.

Meanwhile at UF, few students know about Aramark’s history and little direct activism against the company. There was a boycott organized in response to the cockroach sightings at Gator Corner, but it was only for a day and did not raise much awareness.

So far, UF hasn’t made any major decisions about the future of Aramark’s contract, Dubay said.

It comes down to what UF values more: refusing to stand with a company that profits off of mass incarceration or falling back on a decades-long partnership because it’s convenient.

He explained that hypothetically switching providers or moving toward self-operated campus dining would be “quite an undertaking and a major transition.”

The University of California, Berkeley, in addition to several other public universities in the U.S., have successfully maintained self-operated dining halls. Dropping Aramark has many benefits: It could allow UF students to sell food on campus and campus organizations wouldn’t be required to go through Classic Fare to cater their events. Dubay said switching companies wouldn’t even affect UF’s current food service employees, who would likely remain working on campus, just under different management.

But UF would lose Aramark’s unique benefits, Dubay said, like its buying power as a national company and its culinary training programs.

It would cost UF time and money to self-operate its campus dining, but the university is already spending millions on sustainable building renovations, new stadiums and new restaurants. It comes down to what UF values more: refusing to stand with a company that profits from mass incarceration or falling back on a decades-long partnership because it’s convenient.

As the end to Aramark’s contract approaches in June 2019, UF has two years to consider its complicity with the prison-industrial complex. •