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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Why should you trust Aramark?

Published: March 19, 2010
Section: Opinions

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how large Aramark is. Headquartered in Philadelphia, this massive organization of more than 250,000 full-time employees provides food and facilities to businesses, prisons, conventions, sporting events, and of course, colleges and universities. Though we often think of Aramark as simply a Brandeisian problem, ours is just one of the many places where that red logo—and the business practices that accompany it—has made its mark.

Let me tell you a few stories about our notorious dining provider:

In January, the Keller school district in Fort Worth, Texas negotiated a $1 million settlement with Aramark after accusing the company of “gross negligence.” According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the district accused Aramark of failing “to implement an effective system to prevent facilities and equipment from deteriorating or failing.”

Aramark’s employees are not always its biggest fans either. In September of last year, about 100 demonstrators marched at the University of Southern California to protest Aramark’s unfair health insurance co-pay hikes. The co-pays had been 7.25 percent of workers’ paychecks until Aramark raised the rate to 25 percent. The following negotiations brought that down to 12 percent, but that wasn’t good enough for workers who were already having trouble paying to begin with.

The company has even managed to tick off entire state governments. In September 2008, Aramark terminated its contract with the Florida prison system after a rocky seven-year relationship. In 2008, the state fined Aramark $261,000 for allowing long lines and using excessive food substitutions—the company replaced all beef with ground turkey, resulting in cheaper, poorer quality meals. This is particularly bad practice at prisons, where the quality of food needs to be good enough to keep inmates satisfied and, more importantly, under control.

But customers are not Aramark’s concern. The theme found here is simple: Aramark cuts costs wherever possible to maximize profit.

The situation at Brandeis is no different. To be fair, we’ve had it easy here compared to other customers. Aramark has so far managed to avoid major legal disputes with Brandeis. But they are allowed to milk us for all we’re worth.

I recently met with Nathan Ross, a student who was involved in investigating worker’s rights and Aramark last year. He agreed that Aramark’s primary concern is to turn the strongest possible profit, even if it means sacrificing quality. But he added that one of the ways Aramark does this is through artificial price inflation.

A quick look at meal plan prices appears to back this up. Take, for example, the popular All-Points Plan. For $2473, you can have $1400 in Aramark points, which puts the value of one point at $1.77. This is obviously a bad deal, especially when you consider the expensive food these points are going to be used for.

The other meal plans operate the same way, forcing all students who do not have kitchens to pay a large sum of money for a much smaller return. Aramark and the administration, ever vigilant about their PR, claims that this imbalance is necessary.

They need the extra money, to pay not only for food, but also for labor costs, general dining hall maintenance, and the fact that students demand later hours for convenience.

At first, these reasons seem valid—one cannot deny the various costs that go into running a dining establishment. But then again, every other food establishment has to deal with those costs as well. As a quick trip to Moody Street will show you, most restaurants can maintain their buildings without charging ridiculous prices.

“A company could turn a healthy profit while doing half of what Aramark does [to cut costs],” Nathan said.

One has to wonder, then, what is being done with all its money.

As Nathan pointed out, no one—especially students—really knows how Aramark spends its money here on campus. Aramark is a private company with a history of secrecy. Even the contract between it and Brandeis is kept confidential, to the point where only administration officials are allowed to see it.

I would like to say that there is a legitimate reason for our dining system to work the way it does. I would like to say that Aramark and the administration really do have our best interests at heart. But how am I supposed to trust them?