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Book of Matthew: Aramark, off the mark

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Opinions


The usual dinner crowd surrounded Einstein’s Bagels.  Students browsed through shelves full of prefabricated salads, chip bags and microwaveable meals.  They peered into the refrigerators, selecting one Coca-Cola product or another.  Each swipe of a WhoCard indicated to those surrounding that, for yet another student, dinner was served.

Amid the cacophony of continuous transactions, I could hear workers shouting out bagel orders to students who thought it wiser to eschew packaged food in favor of the real deal.

Or so they thought.

“All bagels at Einstein’s have high fructose corn syrup in them,” Amy Englesberg ’12 said to me as we sat at a nearby table.

We were discussing food quality at Brandeis.  Amy is a member of Real Food 2020.  Founded only a few weeks ago, this small coalition of Brandeis students has a simple goal: a university that serves 20 percent “real food” by the year 2020.

“Real food,” she said, “nourishes all aspects of the food system.”  It is produced ethically, through the humane treatment of animals and the labor of fairly compensated workers.  It is grown locally and sustainably, without the use of chemical pesticides and with as small a carbon footprint as possible.  It is also healthy, being free of trans fats, chemical additives and high fructose corn syrup.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to find on campus.  A quick walk through any dining hall reveals an unpleasant sight.  Much of the food is processed.  Very little is “fair trade,” with the exception of some coffee.  And while labels of “organic” or “natural” can be found, these terms have been so misused by food corporations that they have become methods of false advertising, rather than legitimate consumer notifications.

Basically, almost none of the food served on campus meets “real food” standards.  There are a few “locally-grown” signs hovering around the salad bars, but that’s about it.  Amy estimated that one percent of campus food is “real”—far from her coalition’s goal.

What’s the largest obstacle blocking change?  Not students.  The seven core members of Real Food 2020 have used various club listservs to reach out to more than one hundred students, and the results have been quite positive.  “Some people have never thought about what they put into their bodies,” Amy said.  “Once people are aware, it’s hard not to act because food is what makes us function.”

Aramark is the behemoth standing in our way.  Though Amy and other students have brought “real food” to the attention of officials like Director of Dining Services Michael Newmark, the responses have so far been the same: lots of excuses, little action.

For example, Aramark claims that they are unsure about the safety of much locally-grown food.  It also insists that small farms do not have the capacity to provide for all of Brandeis’ dining needs.

This is, as Amy puts it, “extremely hypocritical.”  Brandeis’ main produce provider, Sid Wainer & Son, buys from farms all over Massachusetts.  And, like any responsible provider, they confirm the safety of this food.  Aramark should know that they have nothing to worry about.  So why are they being so stubborn?

“It is difficult to make these connections with farmers,” Amy said.  “[Aramark] has more important things to do, like figuring out ways to rip us off.”

“In all honesty,” she added, “I don’t think they really care.”

This is a legitimate concern.  Not all schools are in the same situation regarding “real food.”  The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amy said, serves 27 percent “real food”—to a campus population of about 40,000 students.  There are even food service companies like Aramark who have made sustainability a much greater priority.  Chartwells and Bon Appetite, subsidiaries of Compass Group North America, have both taken steps toward reducing the environmental impact of their operations and increasing their supply of locally-grown food.  Bon Appetite even tries to get students involved.  It recently published a manual about how to start a student garden and integrate it into the campus food supply.

When Brandeis started its own student garden, Newmark was reluctant to integrate it because of “food safety,” which was news to the students who did the planting.

“Is it safer to put chemicals and pesticides in our bodies than a little extra dirt?” Amy asked.

No, it’s not.  And it’s foolish to delude ourselves into thinking so.

It’s time we realized that Aramark’s current business strategy is holding Brandeis back while other schools move forward to improve their dining.  Luckily, we have the opportunity to change that.  Aramark’s contract is once again up for renewal, and as the administration goes through this process, we should remind them of one very important thing:

“Aramark is not our only option,” Amy said.  “If they do not recognize the student body and the values of our university, then we should not think twice about keeping them.”

We are the customers here.  We are, as they say, always right.  We all pay Brandeis a large sum of money for dining, much of which goes to Aramark ($10.7 million in 2008).  We expect a service in return for that money.  As part of this service, we ought to demand that Aramark provide sustainable food that is actually good for us.

If it cannot do that, then it’s time for the customers to find another place to shop.