As the university approaches its December contract renewal deadline with Aramark, the two finalists for the meal service contract — Sodexo and current auxiliary services provider Aramark — presented their plans for future dining offerings, covering programming initiatives, sustainability issues and meal plan structures, at open house events on campus this week.
Sodexo has faced at least nine documented boycotts on university campuses since 2006.
Sodexo and Aramark showcased their different offerings to hundreds of students Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. In both plans, the top floor of O’Donovan Hall would be replaced with retail space for contractors, while the lower level would remain a dining hall.
The two multinational companies also have in common a history of conflicts with labor groups over fair treatment and pay at several universities, correctional facilities and military bases around the world.
In January, students at Northwestern University joined dining employees in a march and rally against Sodexo, while an editorial in The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia urged the university to reconsider its contract with Aramark after Progress Michigan reported that Aramark fed inhumane food to inmates at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland, Mich., in 2015. Emory University decided last year not to renew its contract with Sodexo amid concerns that Sodexo prevented employees from unionizing and providing independent feedback on their employment experience, while students at Seattle Pacific University called for Sodexo’s contract to be dropped amid concerns over workers being paid sub-poverty wages in Latin America.
Last spring, Aramark workers at Georgetown spoke out about poor work and wage conditions — including accusations that they experienced inconsistent wage payments, racial discrimination and verbal abuse. After the community presented a petition of 2,021 signatures to Aramark’s management and several demonstrations, the company reached a contract agreement with its employees to implement a fair process for worker unionization and improved working conditions.
In its plan, Sodexo, which provides dining services to schools including George Mason University, Northwestern University and Loyola Marymount University, emphasized its proposed changes on sustainability, social justice and meal exchanges.
Students from schools with dining halls operated by Sodexo report mixed feelings about the company’s management.
Georgetown University Student Association Deputy Chief of Staff Samantha Granville (COL ’17), a sophomore transfer student from Loyola Marymount University – which uses Sodexo – in Los Angeles, Calif., said her experience with Sodexo dining far exceeded Aramark’s quality.
“I loved the food at Sodexo at LMU. Everything was really fresh and made to order right in front of you. I was never shocked about what I was getting. There were always a ton of options,” Granville said. “I think Aramark gives us frozen food, and sometimes they defrost it and sometimes they don’t. With Sodexo, I could always count on having a good meal.”
However, not all students with Sodexo dining halls are satisfied. Dan Waldman, a sophomore at Northwestern University, said Sodexo employees often feel uncomfortable reporting to management.
Service workers at Northwestern wanted the ability to work 40 hours per week, a more manageable work load and fair wages.
Sodexo Spokesperson and Director of Business Development for Universities Merlyn Bowen said the company shares Georgetown’s ideals of social justice.
“I’m hoping that [students] can see the differences in the company philosophy, especially our focus on food and the focus of our institution in terms of the Jesuit culture and what’s important to us as an organization as it relates to fair practices, social justice, sustainability, the type of dining partner that we are, not just from a food perspective, but in all of the other issues,” Bowen said in an interview with The Hoya.
However, Waldman said Sodexo employees at Northwestern tend to express frustration while at work.
“It seems like most workers don’t stay for more than a month and they can often be kind of surly,” Waldman wrote. “I’ve heard workers talk about not liking Sodexo to each other and a lot of them talk under their breath but I haven’t seen anything really that has caught my eye.”
Workers’-rights advocacy group Georgetown Solidarity Committee Member Joseph Gomez (SFS ’19) said GSC has not been involved in the selection process but is aware of the reports about Sodexo’s working conditions.
“No one from the Georgetown Solidarity Committee is directly involved in the selection of the new dining vendor, but we’re very aware of what’s at stake, and we’re monitoring the situation closely,” Gomez wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Bowen said fair labor treatment is a priority for Sodexo.
“How we treat people is fundamentally at our core-most self, in terms of an organization, a huge piece of how we operate. It permeates through our entire philosophy from human resources, staffing, how we build our concepts, how we build our labor models, how we work together with unions.” Bowen said. “It’s fundamentally a huge part of who we are.”
Similarly, Aramark Higher Education Vice President of Strategic Development Tim Grant said supporting workers’ professional development is crucial for Aramark’s success.
“A critical element to what we are prepared to bring forward is further development of the individuals who are Georgetown dining services today,” Grant said in an interview with The Hoya. “The training, development, career, personal advancement, professional advancement for really the entire staff, because in order to deliver something new, the people that are expected to deliver it need the skills, they need the tools, they need the environment to work in to enable the execution of the program so that’s a critical piece of what we are displaying here.”
GUSA President Enushe Khan (MSB ’17) met with Sodexo and Aramark representatives to discuss protecting workers’ rights, and said that both providers were similar in their policies.
“So far as we have heard with both providers, there won’t really be much of a difference of treatment and benefits overall just sort of social justice oriented policies. It looks relatively the same for both,” Khan said.
GUSA Vice President Chris Fisk (COL ’17) said he has met with student activists to listen to their concerns about the providers’ history of workers’ rights violations.
“We’ve been putting them in contact with each district manager each day,” Fisk said. “We’ve been asking questions of the same sort, talking about union relations, what will the process of transition be for both companies, things like that, so it has not been something that we have taken lightly. We’ve been in the process of asking the same pointed questions to both companies over the past two days.”
The Office of Auxiliary Business Services’ Request for Proposal Committee, which oversees the dining provider selection process, began searching for providers last year, ahead of the expiration of Aramark’s contract with the university.
Both providers indicated that the first floor of Leo’s could include retail offerings including Chick-fil-A and the Habit Burger Grill.
According to GUSA Senator Saad Bashir (SFS ’19), the RFP Committee provided the two companies with guidelines for their proposed changes to meal plans, meal exchange, retail options and overall dining experience, which include significant renovations to Leo’s.
Vice President for Auxiliary Business Services Joelle Wiese said the presentations demonstrate improvements that can be made in dining services.
“Both companies presented very well, they have very interesting programs and I think everybody was able to kind of go around,” Wiese said. “There’s tons of detail when it comes into what Leo’s could look like in the future, what Hoya Court could look like in the future, what is the people experience for the employees with their training development programs, what are the social justices and sustainability elements that both of these companies have, and I’m really understanding the food, the quality of the food.”
Wiese also said any structural changes to Leo’s would be funded by the contractor, not student tuition.
According to Khan, the RFP Committee is planning to host a town hall in coming weeks after the results of feedback forms sent to students who visited the showcases are examined.
“The open houses were a result of student advocacy and saying ‘we really need engagement’ and, moving forward, that model will continue,” Khan said. “So whether it’s a town hall [where] we will have with the administration for students to voice explicitly, ‘we like this provider versus this provider,’ throughout the process we would like to continue that [effort].”
Correction: This article previously stated Joseph Gomez (SFS ’19) is in the College; he is in the School of Foreign Service. This article also previously stated Think Progress Michigan reported that Aramark fed inhumane food to inmates at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland, Mich., in 2015; the group’s correct name is Progress Michigan.