Aramark is the devil

Cast them far from campus and sprinkle holy water on all they have touched.

Some of the first columns I wrote on this campus, starting in fall of 2005, were about Aramark’s control of University Dining Service.

I knew their decade-long contract wouldn’t expire for a few more years, but it was necessary to lay the groundwork for eventual change by sticking out my neck and writing “What’s behind your lunch” Parts One through Five.

But now it is crunch time. Now recommendations will soon be issued by a committee. Hopefully, the consensus will be to cast Aramark far from this campus and sprinkle holy water on all the surfaces and objects they have touched. I say this as a former loyal Aramark employee who was never been harmed or cheated in any way, but I was in a position to see and hear plenty.

The scandals which follow this company everywhere are easy to turn up by plugging the word “Aramark” into a Google news search. I did this back in 2005 and 2006, and it would have been possible to write a new “What’s behind your lunch” column every month just based on Aramark’s latest scandal.

Let’s take a spin around the place President George W. Bush calls “the Internets” and see what turns up in the past week, shall we?

At the Larimer County Detention Center, a mix of employees from Aramark and about 50 jail inmates prepare three meals a day for the prisoners. But recently, a bunch of inmates serving “weekend sentences” were sickened by a bad batch of chili which may not have been refrigerated properly.

(I hope it won’t surprise readers to learn Aramark is extensively involved in serving meals to prisoners as well as college students).

In Detroit, Aramark is accused of pocketing “food rebates and discounts” which should have been given back to the Detroit public schools and billing $1.6 million dollars in questionable fees.

In Illinois, Aramark is involved in a bidding process at the DuPage County jail “fraught with ambiguity and conflict” and has been throwing around thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to public officials involved in the bidding process.

I’m not the only person suggesting (in the last month) Aramark needs to be booted off a college campus. Individuals at the University of New Mexico, writing for the Daily Lobo, are “fed up” with Aramark. One student said renewal of their contract made him “sick to my stomach.”

Though issues of worker treatment have been raised, as well as sustainable and fair trade food choices, my biggest beef with Aramark concerns their prices.

Ham sandwiches sold by UDS for $3.99 don’t look like they could help decide a student government election, which is usually an easy task at the University for any sandwich, even one lacking meat. Meanwhile, you can buy Las Campanas brand burritos at Harvard Market East for 59 cents. That’s not even a special, just an everyday price.

A little bitty “fresh fruit cup” from UDS costs $2.49, while Harvard Market East sells 2 big apples for $1.20, a whole pound of baby cut carrots for $1.39. Comparing UDS meal prices to all-you-can eat buffets near campus tends to show that any time you can avoid UDS, your pocketbook is better off.

Maybe there are times people shrug and think, “Well, college is expensive.” But now there is a recession coming on. Aramark should not be allowed to occupy valuable space on campus and charge “airport prices” while mom-and-pop places, right across the street, prove how easy it is to offer more affordable food choices.

But give the devil his due. UDS food is both safe and appetizing. There may be a few justified complaints, but most of the time they do a pretty good job on that score, especially right before a contract is due to be renewed, I strongly suspect.

In fact, the little bistro tucked into a corner where the Humphrey Institute connects to Carlson School of Management has amazing meals comparable to four-star dining, and at a fairly good price. (Just not as good as the Chinese buffets within sight of Carlson). And speaking of Carlson, I think we should have students from Carlson School of Management running UDS. We should kick Aramark out, and have our facilities become a training ground for future managers of food institutions.

There is another saying about the devil. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Though Aramark is bad, I’ve heard more than one individual in a position to know say the company called “Sodexho” is even worse.

Reports of workers being treated badly concern me, but the problem is the difficulty of monitoring worker treatment. Prices for food items, on the other hand, as well as earth-friendly practices like composting can be more easily observed.

If the University chooses to hold its nose and sign our collective blood on a new deal with the devil, then contractual promises should be won about worker treatment, earth-friendly practices and in particular prices comparable to competitors right across the street, whether grocery stores or wonderful little restaurants catering to our campus.

In this way, prices and earth-friendly practices will be like an indicator. Under such arrangements, if you see bananas costing a dollar then you will instantly know Aramark is breaking its promises. If you are eating with plastic spoons instead of silverware, you will know promises about earth-friendly practices are being violated.

If Aramark breaks its promises, harsh and immediate action should follow based on the “iceberg theory.” There’s always so much more beneath the surface you can’t see. Most of the worker treatment will always be behind the scenes.

But banana prices can be instantly observed.

Yet I have to wonder why would this University make deals and bargains with the devil in the first place? The facts about Aramark are not a secret. The nature of the devil is well known.

These are not the kind of people who should be behind our lunch.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]