Chase Cerbin, staff writer
Sodexo, Inc. is the food company that serves meals at Warren Wilson College. The company’s global and local impacts were investigated in the last issue of The Echo.
On a worldwide scale, Sodexo has gained an infamous reputation by settling a multi-million dollar racial bias suit in 2005. Independent research groups have found Sodexo to be anti-union. For these reasons and others, a handful of universities have dropped their contracts with Sodexo.
In recent years, the company has attempted to clean up its image by hiring a renowned diversity expert. Last month, Sodexo was named the number one company for diversity by DiversityInc magazine.
On a local scale, Sodexo has given Warren Wilson substantial say over the food they purchase, which is not a typical procedure. They also recently donated $30,000 to Warren Wilson – money that is being put toward building hoop houses.
While Sodexo is trying to improve their reputation, some students are still unhappy about supporting a corporate company with negative marks on its track record. Some want a change, but what would change look like and how much would it cost?
Sodexo General Manager Brian O’Loughlin, who has worked on the Warren Wilson campus for 17 years, said that “there are three big companies in this business: Aramark, Chartwells, and Sodexo,” noting that these companies are very similar. “If you want to make a change,” warned O’Loughlin, “be careful what you’re looking for. Because you could get rid of Sodexo and get a group of people who do not share your values when it comes to local food and sustainability. You’re rolling the dice.”
Guilford College: from Sodexo to another dining service
In 2008, Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina rolled the dice, switching from Sodexo to Meriwether Godsey, a Virginia-based dining service.
“Everyone was upset with Sodexo. Everyone hated them. Students hated them, faculty hated them and, more importantly, parents of the students hated them,” said Maia Buess, a junior at Guilford.
According to Buess, the change was driven by seven Guilford students who conducted an independent study focusing on Guilford’s food system and the negative impacts of Sodexo.
Jon Varnell, vice president of administration at Guilford, explained that “Guilford, for two years, talked about doing a request for proposal to re-bid dining. Finally it was decided by the president to do so. There were complaints with Sodexo, but that was par for the course. Their management instability on-site probably had the most impact on that decision.”
Buess was a part of the 16-member board that unanimously voted for Meriwether Godsey over Bon Appétit and Sodexo.
Meriwether Godsey is an employee-owned company that promises “personal attention, real partnership and fabulous food to its clients.”
They also have a focus on sustainability. Meriwether Godsey claims to use as many local and organic foods as possible and they collect fryer oil for alternative fuel.
“The food quality has changed. It is very good,” Buess said. “I actually want to eat there now.”
While many students supported the change and the food appears to be better, the switch has not come without problems.
“We had to greatly increase our cost to be able to offer a better meal plan. Sometimes that’s hard to convince finance folks to do, but we talked long and hard about the fact we had to make the investment,” said Varnell. “Meriwether Godsey would have had a very hard time with what Sodexo was being paid all those years.”
Along with increased costs, employees of Guilford’s dining service have recently spoken out against Meriwether Godsey’s practices.
The outrage began after employee Debbie Grogan, who won the Dick Dyer Staff Hearts and Hands award last year, was fired.
This incident motivated workers and former employees to speak out against Meriwether Godsey’s treatment of workers.
“Slave days are back at Guilford College,” an anonymous dining worker told the Guilfordian, Guilford’s student newspaper, when asked about the situation in the kitchen.
Former employee James Crump, who was promised a pay raise under Meriwether Godsey, said, “I think I sold my soul to the devil for a few more dollars an hour.”
While there have been numerous complaints ranging from racial discrimination to overworking within Guilford’s dining services, a recent survey has also shown increased satisfaction among workers.
According to the Guilfordian, only 17 percent of Meriwether Godsey’s Guilford employees responded to an annual survey assessing performance from 2008-09, the company’s first full year at the college. Of those, 63 percent said they felt management was responsive to their needs. For the 2009-10 survey, 50 percent of employees responded, and 76.5 percent of them felt supported by management.
In-House Dining Services
Warren Wilson went through a brief period in the 1980s of independently running its own dining service. This was when the school had around 480 students.
They had previously been using ARA dining service, now known as Aramark.
Dean of Work Ian Robertson commented on the school’s experience with Aramark, saying, “ARA was not receptive of serving food from the garden.” He further noted that the food was heavily focused on a meat-and-potatoes diet.
“We decided we would try to run it ourselves,” explained Robertson. “We talked to some small schools in the Vermont area about doing it ourselves and we got fairly positive feedback. They told us we’d have more control and that it would create a food service that is more in line with the campus culture.”
The school hired manager Franz Kopp who previously managed a dining hall at Duke University.
A few months after taking the position at Warren Wilson, Kopp’s son died in an car accident.
“That [accident] changed Franz,” Robertson recalled. “It was very hard for him to be focused on the food services. He did his best, but clearly he was distracted.”
The quality of the food service declined.
“Things started going downhill,” Robertson explained. “The food started going downhill. The line standing and ordering went downhill. Everything wasn’t getting done the way it needed to get done.”
The school then reassessed the situation, considering whether to continue providing services themselves or hire an outside company.
“We had written up pretty stringent contract agreements that included using food from the Warren Wilson farm and garden,” Robertson said. “We decided we’d go with Sodexo, with a strong, negotiated contract. That contract focused on who we were as an institution.”
Robertson praised Sodexo’s efforts since their arrival.
“Since Sodexo has been here, my belief is they have responded to the institution’s needs,” he said.
As for returning to in-house dining services, Robertson noted that right now, the college is able to negotiate a contract to its advantage.
“[Sodexo has] the power to buy in bulk, which keeps the cost under control,” Robertson said. “If we ran [the school’s dining services] ourselves we would probably not have the ability to purchase things at the same price. This would a mean a higher room and board charge – and that is a reality.”
The College of the Atlantic in Maine, although smaller than Warren Wilson, currently operates their own dining service. With approximately 325 students, the college’s food is purchased by two kitchen co-managers.
“The kitchen has three full-time staff, two co-managers [who purchase the food] and an additional dinner cook,” said Molly Anderson, the partridge chair in food and sustainable agriculture systems at College of the Atlantic. “Several work-study students are employed each term. All of them work for College of the Atlantic.”
As for local food, Anderson explained that a recent survey showed that 12 percent of food served in their cafeteria is grown within 100 miles of their campus and 29 percent is certified as organic by the USDA.
In comparison, Warren Wilson purchased around 10 percent of its food from within 100 miles, according to an April 2009 survey. Statistics on organic foods are unavailable.
“Our numbers might seem low, but not much food is produced within 100 miles of College of the Atlantic,” Anderson said.
Anderson mentioned that she likes how the school runs the service because it serves the mission of the college and supports local businesses.
“It also supports local entrepreneurs, including a 70-year-old woman who makes our bagels by hand,” Anderson said.
As for price, Warren Wilson’s estimated room and board costs for 2010-2011 are $8,028 while the College of the Atlantic’s is $8,490.
Staying with Sodexo
Sodexo is in the third year of five-year contract which will come to an end in 2012. A new contract will then be drafted and signed, or a new system put into place. Even if the school renews a contract with Sodexo, however, things may change.
A policy for sustainable food, available on the Local Foods Crew website, was recently completed by faculty members and the Local Foods Crew.
According to Jeffrey McConnaughey of the Local Foods Crew, the local foods policy task force will meet in the first week of May “for a vote of approval to send [the policy] to the president.”
Currently, around 10 percent of the college’s food is deemed sustainable by the Local Foods Crew.
If the sustainable food policy is implemented, the amount of sustainable food will be raised to 41.5 percent by 2020.
It is estimated that bringing in more local foods will raise dining costs.
An anonymous individual posted a question on the Local Foods Crew website, asking, “is it realistic that we can achieve these goals without significant additional funding for food purchasing?”
The crew responded by saying, “it is probably not likely to increase the proportion of food purchases coming from local or sustainable sources without additional funding. There are potential funding sources for increasing this portion of the food budget including, but not limited to, higher prices for meal plans.”
Emory University in Atlanta is an institution that proves getting more local food through Sodexo is possible. Last year, 38 percent of their food was purchased locally. This year, they have a goal to raise that number to 45 percent with a long-term goal of 75 percent by 2015.
Emory considers local food as food grown in Georgia or the southeastern region of the United States.
If Warren Wilson used the same definition, buying within North Carolina and the Southeast, nearly 15 percent of all food served would be local, according to the April 2009 chart prepared by the Local Foods Crew.
Julie Shaffer, sustainable food service education coordinator at Emory, explained their progress.
“For two years [2007-2009], we hired a farmer liaison,” Shaffer said. “He went all over the state and region making relationships with local farmers. We have have continued to expand upon those relationships. We now have several farmers growing plots just for us.”
When asked about how college costs have changed with the influx of local food, Shaffer said that they have not increased.
“It is a borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul type deal,” Shaffer said. “If you get expensive, organic, grass-fed ground beef, you have to find a way to cut a cost in another place. You have to get creative, but it can be done [without raising costs].”
While Emory’s room and board rate has not increased, it is $10,220, nearly $2,000 more than that of Warren Wilson.
Despite having to make financial compromises, Shaffer asserted that “it is not impossible to get more local food. Always keep that in mind.”