Chase Cerbin, staff writer
Sodexo, Inc. touts itself as the leading provider of food services and facilities management in the United States, Canada and Mexico, serving over 10 million people in 6,000 different locations everyday. The company serves food for a variety of company restaurants, schools, cruise ships, hospitals and armed forces and was recently contracted to feed athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. More relevantly, Sodexo provides the food at Warren Wilson.
“Sodexo has been here on campus since around the mid- or late 80’s,” said Sodexo General Manager Brian O’Loughlin, who has worked here for 17 years.
Before its contract with Sodexo, Warren Wilson worked with various food companies, none of which provided the College with the services they required. The school then tried to purchase and serve food independent of other companies.
“None of these options were working out,” said O’Loughlin, “and then they got us.”
Although Warren Wilson has stuck with Sodexo over the years, there has been both worldwide controversy surrounding the company and local concern.
Portland State University, University of London, American University, Binghamton University, University Laval in Québec City and Allegheny College in Pennsylvania have all boycotted Sodexo for reasons they considered unethical, such as the company’s low wages and poor working conditions, bias toward minorities, unsustainable business practices and involvement with the U.S. Military.
These concerns are not unwarranted. According to Democracy Now, in 2005, Sodexo settled a $80 million racial bias suit. Thousands of African American workers accused the company of denying the workers’ promotions because of their race. The workers also accused Sodexo of fostering a segregated work environment. According to court documents from 2000, no African Americans held top corporate positions within the company.
Anti-unionism is another area where Sodexo has come under fire. Service Employees International Union, which has 2.2 million members in North America, accused the company of paying “poverty-inducing wages” and exploiting weak U.S. labor laws to hinder union membership.
This month, Vigeo, a leading European corporate social responsibility rating agency, downgraded Sodexo’s rating from “average” to “negative.” The ratings were lowered due to the company’s poor performance in preventing human rights violations and respecting rights to unions and collective bargaining.
Sodexo’s controversial track record has caused some universities to drop Sodexo altogether, while others have required them to raise workers’ pay.
Corporate Watch, an Oxford-based independent research group has noted that “Sodexo’s anti-union stance and involvement with private prisons have led Xavier University, DePaul University and the State University of New York at Albany, amongst others, to end their relationships with Sodexo. Wesleyan College and Harvard have required janitorial contractors to raise wages and benefits to reasonable standards.”
On a more local level, last year, an anonymous individual sent an email to every student derailing Sodexo and its corporate policies. The person, who was identified only as a “concerned Warren Wilson student,” claimed that “by not protesting [Sodexo’s] existence on campus [students, faculty and staff may be] feeding a company entirely dedicated to profit.”
According O Loughlin Sodexo supports charities and donates to local food banks.
Sophomore Melanie Kemp is another student unimpressed with the current food situation. “I think that because Sodexo can purchase food globally, they do.” An April 2009 chart prepared by the campus’s Local Foods Crew showed that nearly 40% of the food budget was used to purchase global food. They found approximately 1% of this amount sustainable.
Along with these irresponsible business practices, Kemp also commented on Sodexo’s resistance to more change. “It is a very set system,” she said.
Sodexo is in the third year of a five-year contract with the school.
“There is not a person who is able to transcend both sides [of the discussion between students and Sodexo employees],” Kemp said. “[The employees] are main representatives of Sodexo, so it’s not like they’re going to say, ‘we want a different system.’”
O’Loughlin addressed this criticism, saying, “we have a really good staff of [Sodexo employees here] who give it everything they got for the students and this college. When I hear people saying they want change for the sake of change it makes me upset,” said O’Loughlin. He added, “there are people who have worked here for a number of years and you’re talking about putting them out of a job.”
O’Loughlin willingly purchases as much local and organic food as is possible within the given system. He mentioned also that Sodexo lets Warren Wilson be more flexible in their food-purchasing than with other colleges.
“Sodexo knew they couldn’t run this campus like other campuses,” he said. “It wouldn’t work. They give us the leeway to do things the way the school wants.”
With this freedom, O’Loughlin has routinely purchased food through the local company Mountain Foods, meat through the Warren Wilson farm and vegetables from the garden.
“The farm is producing more than ever. Right now we get all the ground beef we serve through them. I’ve also been trying to get all the breakfast sausage through them, but we haven’t got there yet. I’d love it if we could get all the meat through them…they are working hard on it,” said O’Loughlin.
The majority of colleges who contract with Sodexo have a much more rigid purchasing pattern with little, if any, local food. Although the company allows O’Loughlin to purchase local food, they are not thrilled about letting Warren Wilson deviate from the typical program. Were a student to become fatally ill from consuming food in Gladfelter or Cowpie, their family could sue Sodexo regardless of the food’s source because Sodexo is liable for all food served on campus. Despite these concerns, Sodexo realizes these exceptions are necessary to maintain their affiliation with Warren Wilson.
O’Loughlin noted that he has final say over what food is purchased. “Ultimately, I’m going to make the decisions.”
With this said, he assured that he is open to students’ input.
“We are here to enhance your experience any way we can,” O’Loughlin asserted. “A lot of what we do here is student-driven. I listen to what students have to say within reason.”
While students can make a differenec, they must be aware that purchasing more local, organic food will almost certainly raise the cost of room and board, a possible reason why the school has not already chosen this option.
Letting Warren Wilson purchase more local foods is not the only positive of having Sodexo on campus. The company recently donated $30,000 to the College. Said O’Loughlin of the contribution, “it took the College a while to decide what they wanted to spend it on. It just came into effect two or three weeks ago. [Garden Manager] Karen Joslin said, ‘I want to build hoop houses,’ and we said, ‘okay we’ll cut you the check for them.’”
According to Sustainable Farmer magazine, “a hoop house is an unheated passive solar greenhouse that can be used for winter production of vegetables in northern states.”
“That is another one of the things you get from a bigger company: sometimes they are willing to give money while smaller companies can’t do that,” O’Loughlin observed.
Besides aiding Warren Wilson on the local scale, Sodexo has been trying to clean up its image worldwide. O’Loughlin noted that Sodexo has implemented a new Fair Trade coffee service called Aspretto, which will put money back into the economies from which the coffee is supplied. Sodexo’s website claims the system has already assisted a Nicaraguan cooperative purchase meals and school supplies for students.
Also on a global scale, Sodexo has made attempts to be more encouraging of diversity, naming respected diversity expert Dr. Rohini Anand as their Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer. Recent news stories show her changing the face of the company. In an evaluation released this month by DiversityInc Magazine, Sodexo was ranked the number one company for diversity. Also this month, Sodexo was named one of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” by Fortune 500.
Sodexo has had their fair share of controversy, but they have also donated money and given certain freedoms to the College.
Sodexo workers do not want change because it could cost them their jobs, but what do students want? They have not caused enough uproar to stop Warren Wilson from renewing Sodexo’s contract.
If students want to switch, what are the viable alternatives and how much would they cost? Would they be an improvement or a failure? What methods have other schools used to switch? These topics, among others, will be looked at in the next issue’s continued investigation.