Part 2: What’s eating UDS?

The corporatization of college dining services has social complications.

Brian Reinken

I explored the nutritional aspects of college dining last week, focusing especially on the fat and sodium content of certain UDS menu items. The story of what’s on the menu was just the beginning: This week, we’ll see who’s in the kitchen.

In 1998, the University of Minnesota signed a 10-year contract with Aramark, a food-industry corporation that provides meal services across the United States. After the deal helped reverse the economic losses that haunted the school’s dining program, the University ratified a new, 12-year contract in 2008.

Outside the University, Aramark serves 3M, UnitedHealth Group and certain National Football League venues. When the Minnesota Vikings stadium opens in 2016, Aramark will likely provide food services there, too. The company has provided catering to numerous Olympic Games, and it has branches in 22 countries spanning four continents.

Why, then, do students know so little about the relationship between Aramark and UDS?

Other than mentioning once that Aramark and the University operate UDS in partnership, the UDS website makes no mention of the company until it directs students looking to purchase a meal plan to an external web page. The page, CampusDish, acts as a portal for Aramark’s college dining services.

Aramark’s own website is equally opaque. While it mentions the services it provides to universities nationwide, it doesn’t provide a comprehensive list of which schools it serves.

There may be strategy behind this.

By standing behind UDS, Aramark retains a degree of anonymity. Students are accustomed to dealing with the smiling face of UDS, and the dining experience feels more personalized and familiar when it isn’t being fronted by a huge corporation.

Furthermore, Aramark’s silence helps keep the University free from association with the company’s sometimes-questionable ethical history.

On campus, if there’s an injustice, an activist group will likely combat it with fliers and fundraisers. College students are notoriously quarrelsome when it comes to social justice, and if some of Aramark’s practices became more commonly known, it could damage the University’s image.

Historically, Aramark’s relationship with UDS has been rocky. UDS employees have complained of verbal abuse, racial discrimination, unsafe working conditions and manipulation of time tables.

Beyond the University, Aramark has been accused of numerous labor and union abuses. Last year, Truthdig reporters alleged the corporation provided inmates in Burlington County Jail in New Jersey with moldy, spoiled and vermin-infested food.

Aramark is not alone, however. It’s one of the three major corporations that dominate college dining, the other two being Sodexo and Compass Group. Ethical questions haunt all three corporations. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much room for other businesses to compete.

Corporate competition is a problem that plagues the University even at a low level.

 

FlexDine

FlexDine is an extension of UDS’s corporate nature. Every meal plan includes a certain amount of FlexDine dollars, which students must spend at a residential or campus restaurant. The program works a bit like a gift card — once you buy the meal plan, all it requires you to do is eat the food you’ve already purchased.

Many of the restaurants partnering with FlexDine are major corporations: Subway, Papa John’s, Panda Express, Chick-fil-A and Jamba Juice, to name a few.

Because UDS requires students living in residential housing to purchase a meal plan, and because every meal plan includes FlexDine dollars, these businesses have an advantage over competitors.

Smaller businesses, meanwhile, are left to fend for themselves.

 

Corporatization questions

It is no easy task to feed the population of the University. The need to satisfy the demands of a very large and essentially captive market breeds corporatization. For what it’s worth, UDS and its partners have satisfied demand very well.

However, because college dining has become so thoroughly corporatized, both in the residential dining halls and outside them, certain crucial ideas can be ignored or overlooked. Personal preparation of food is foremost among them.

Students, especially those living in residential housing, may not always have the time or resources necessary to prepare their own food. Yet, personal preparation is an integral aspect of a healthy life.

Learning to prepare your own food has numerous benefits. First, it allows you to manage your meals’ nutrition. Second, homemade food is generally less expensive than what’s sold at restaurants. Making your own meals gives students control over what they purchase, which helps them avoid using money to fund potentially disagreeable corporate practices.

Of course, personal preparation also allows students to better track the environmental effects of what they eat. Next week, I’ll discuss environmental and sustainability issues as they pertain to college dining.