At the end of this year, PSU will renew its contract with Aramark, the international corporation that provides dining to universities, stadiums, and prisons.
Aramark Corporation, commonly known as Aramark, is an American-based facility, clothing, and food service provider to thousands of businesses, sports facilities, educational and health institutions, and federal and state prisons worldwide. Aramark provides Portland State University (PSU) with dining, catering, food service management, and convenience store services. The only place on campus where food is not provided by Aramark is Green Roots Cafe.
PSU is reputed for its sustainable solutions. Despite the university’s vision to be “an internationally recognized urban university known for excellence in student learning, innovative research, and community engagement that contributes to the economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and quality of life in the Portland region and beyond,” according to their website, the quality of life for students is questionable. Although the university claims to embrace their role as responsible citizens of “the city, the state, the region, and the global community and [to] foster actions, programs, and scholarship that will lead to a sustainable future,” these words hold little meaning when areas such as PSU’s dining services are taken into account.
Aramark has a messy ethical history and has become the subject of numerous scandals relating to labor practices, health violations, and business ethics. In 2008, the Minnesota Daily led an investigation of University Dining Services and Aramark Corp. that was compiled through employment data and interviews with current and former employees. This investigation uncovered instances of Aramark firing employees for reporting unsanitary food conditions. Demands from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, UNITE/Here, and other unions have also reported Aramark for paying fringe wages, not paying employees for all hours worked, not paying back-pay, and for discretely firing employees who filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims.
A 2013 article in The Detroit Free Press revealed that not only does Aramark have a bad track record with its employees, it has also been scrutinized for inadequate portion sizes, food safety issues, and overcharging state prisons in Michigan, Kentucky, and Florida. Corrections officers alleged that a 2009 riot in a Kentucky prison was the result of the poor quality of Aramark’s food. In 2013, Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, led an investigation of the food services at Burlington County Jail in New Jersey and discovered that the food was frequently spoiled, resulting in inmates suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. Additionally, Michigan Live, The Detroit Free Press, The Columbus Dispatch, and numerous other media outlets recently published reports of maggots found in the food preparation areas of various state prisons and correctional institutions across the United States.
The Cavalier Daily, a student-run newspaper at the University of Virginia, published an article reporting that Aramark “served garbage” and “underfed inmates and fed them dog food, worms and scraps of food from old meals.” The article argued that the university should reconsider its current contract with Aramark in lieu of these poor ethical and health standards. According to The West Georgian, the University of West Georgia will not renew its contract with Aramark for the 2016-2017 academic year in order to establish a “high level of excellence” in their dining services and to uphold the university’s vision statement.
We don’t need to look nationwide or even statewide, however, to be convinced of Aramark’s poor food quality, unsavory employment conditions, and lack of holistic sustainability. Just talk to any PSU student with a meal plan and ask if Victor’s has ever made them sick. With Aramark’s track record and Portland State University’s “dedication” to sustainability and community, why has the administration continually renewed Aramark’s contract?
Some may point to the sustainable initiatives tacked onto the new service contract as a way to defend the cyclic renewal, but the 2015 STARS report published by the Sierra Club outlined some of these changes and there was much left to be desired.
As reported by Aramark and PSU dining services in the 2015 STARS report, “PSU Campus Sustainability Office and Aramark Food Service have worked to create goals for increasing local and organic food purchasing.” However, other than mentioning that the goals will soon be added to the contract, the actual plan to enact these initiatives remains vague if not non-existent.
Aramark’s current seal of sustainability at PSU comes from a vague list of so-called accomplishments outlined in the STARS report, which include the fact that “additional criteria such as Fair Trade, Marine Stewardship, and Food Alliance certifications are favored” when purchasing food.
Additional criteria from the report that attempts to prove PSU’s dedication to sustainable dining is that “most” produce is locally sourced, the enhanced tracking of local vendors is “being implemented,” “most” dairy products come from local Sunshine Dairy, all breads served are processed within 250 miles, and that all seafood procurement abides by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” guide. All of which is meaningless unless the PSU Campus Sustainability Office and Aramark can specifically outline actual processes for tracking this criteria other than stating that “invoices are reviewed for food’s origin location, organic or other third-party certifications.”
Peter Daegas, a former sustainability intern for Aramark and PSU Dining Services, was responsible for tracking “products that were being sold by Aramark across campus and record necessary data: distributor, production facility (if the information was available), grown or processed, farm location (if available), cost and quantity, certifications, food type/category, and a few other details.” The information was then compiled and “given to the PSU Campus Sustainability Office to confirm they are following contract and for AASHE reporting.”
According to Daegas, “buying local and organic products is a priority; PSU Dining should be increasing the total purchases of this type by 5% per year.” In regards to enforcement, Daegas says “it is a requirement and laid out in their contract with PSU.” But what exactly does that mean? With such a prevalent lack of enforcement plans and an excessive use of passive language and vague wording, how can students trust that these expectations are upheld? Is it more likely that promises of more sustainable food services will fall to the wayside, acting as a buffer intended to give the appearance of sustainability without requiring the administration to invest time, money, and hard work into honest initiatives?
Unfortunately, it seems so. Maybe it is time for the students of PSU to stand up and tell the administration to put their money where their mouths are, to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, the good kind of dirty.
Maybe it’s time for them “to let knowledge serve the city.”
Aramark Corporation homepage.
Egan, Paul. “Maggots found at second Michigan prison.” July, 2, 2014. The Detroit Free Press.
Egan, Paul. “Michigan’s new prison food contractor accused of skimping on size and quality of meals to boost profits.” May, 07, 2013. The Detroit Free Press
Flechas, Joey. “Students, farmworkers appeal for more money.” February, 18, 2010. The Alligator.
Hedges, Chris. “Food behind bars isn’t fit for your dog.” December, 22, 2013. Truthdig.
Johnson, Alan. “Maggots found in food at two Ohio prisons.” July, 8, 2014. The Columbus Dispatch.
Lavender, George. “Private contractor accused of skimping on prisoner food.” January, 30, 2014. In These Times
Managing Board. “Aramark proves unethical once again: The University should reconsider its relationship with the food services company.” April, 5, 2015. The Cavalier Daily.
Mannix, Andrew. “UDS: controversy behind closed doors.” September, 9, 2008. Minnesota Daily.
Oosting, Jonathan. “Maggots found near food in Jackson prison ‘unacceptable,’ says Gov. Snyder.” July, 1, 2014. Michigan Live.
Portland State University “About PSU” page.
Portland State University STARS report submitted Fed. 27, 2015 through the STAR Reporting Tool/AASHE.
Strassfort, Molly. “UGW ends contract with Aramark.” November, 2, 2015. The West Georgian.