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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Living in a company town

Published: October 10, 2014
Section: Opinions

In the early 1900s, company towns were commonplace in the United States. These were places where a parent company, usually a mining facility or factory, owned all of the land in a town such as housing and the town market. Employers were then able to pay their workers in credit, which they could use at the local store to buy their food and other goods. This inherently skewed system meant that the employer made a double profit from their workers, once for the labor they provided in the factory or mine and again for the purchasing of food and goods from the company store by the workers. These companies would take advantage of the workers because the company towns were too isolated for it to be feasible for the workers to go elsewhere to buy their goods. This inherently unfair system was phased out for a number of reasons, the leading of which was improvements in transportation infrastructure, making it easier for workers to escape the town’s market.

Unfortunately, there is one modern example that feels all too similar to a company town-style business. Food on a college campus. This is not a Brandeis-specific issue, but a much broader societal one. An issue that originates in the capitalist underbelly of society but is monopolistic in its execution, undermining the ability of a market system to do its job. Students on a campus are required to buy a meal plan, which is fine because they will inevitably need to eat while they are at school. However, once students buy into these programs, they are bounded by arbitrary rules and restrictions. When they can eat, where they can use “points” versus “meals,” and how many meals they can use in a given time frame. This becomes frustrating as time moves forward and can be a great point of contention for many students.

The biggest frustration for many students is not that they must have a meal plan, or the quality of food, or even the hours of operation. It’s the fact that deep down everyone knows that someone somewhere is making a profit from our dietary needs. Not that a company making a profit is inherently wrong, but when it’s from a group of people who are already in the national agenda for accumulation of an incomprehensible amount of debt, there must be something morally unjust.

When someone goes to a theme park such as Six Flags or Disney, they expect to be charged an absurd amount for food. But when a student goes to the campus store to buy their small amount of groceries for the week or a snack for while they are studying they should not be charged double the amount as they would be at a standard convenience store or supermarket.

The goal of a campus food provider should be to benefit the students in as many ways as possible, not to profit off of every miniscule thing they can think of and get away with. Living on a college campus shouldn’t feel like living in a company town, where one group has a monopoly no matter how much one resents it. At some point they’re going to have to bite the bullet and buy into the system.

If the United States wants to be a truly capitalist society, it must incorporate true capitalist values into every market. Colleges cannot only have one food vendor. Towns cannot have only one cable provider. Society must do better. As Brandeis students we must, however, do more than complain. There is already a group of students working with Sodexo over the issues that students have voiced. We can push for a rethinking of the entire network of college food systems from groups looking for profit to groups looking to help students. We can improve our society.