Students deserve better than Aramark

We must stop the corrupt company from feeding our campus

I write about food in the Manitoban’s Arts & Culture section. I like sharing good food with others. Knowing that so many people are involved in the process, whether it be growing ingredients, preparing dishes or creating recipes, makes me feel placed in humankind. Food is social.

I have avoided writing on food served at the U of M until now because there is no way for me to talk about most of it without moral remorse.

In April of 2014, the University of Manitoba signed a 10-year contract with food services giant Aramark. The deal renewed Aramark’s two-decade-long exclusive rights to manage and operate campus food services, with the exception of UMSU-owned food vendors like Degrees, IQ’s and GPA’s, and the food services handled by St. John’s and St. Paul’s Colleges.

The company’s involvement in our culinary culture is barely advertised, barring their copyright watermark on the campus Dining Services website. That is alarming, because Aramark has regularly been at the centre of controversy in the nine years since the contract was finalized.

The company has served less than appropriate servings sizes and food crawling with maggots to incarcerated people, and some have been inspired to organize hunger strikes against the company to protest the quality of their food.

Aramark has also been embroiled in scandals and swimming in lawsuits as some of its employees have been alleged to have been smuggling drugs into prisons and accused of engaging in human trafficking. The company’s website has a page assuring readers that Aramark is “focused on ensuring that slavery and human trafficking does not occur within its UK business.”

This is a deeply concerning thing for a food services company to include on their website.

I was not aware of Aramark’s role in curbing hunger on campus until a friend told me. From conversations I have had with friends and colleagues, I suspect most students are not aware either.

That aspects of university life have been privatized at all is a problem, and the fact that the U of M sees Aramark as a suitable steward for this particular aspect of campus life is unconscionable.

This isn’t a person with a checkered past, this is a corporation that has been ordered to courts over hundreds of thousands of dollars in sexual harassment lawsuits.

The U of M’s contract with Aramark is set to expire in April 2024, just one year from now, and there must be something students can do to ensure Aramark does not have a place on our campus.

There is some comfort in the idea of voting with your wallet, in ignoring the Elizabeth Dafoe Library Starbucks and patting yourself on the back for buying your Frappuccino from IQ’s like the conscientious adult you are. The line is always too long anyway.

Unfortunately, I think the problems with Aramark’s business model are part and parcel of market economies. To limit your action to buying better and feel-good consumerism is to accept that the market has solutions to offer you in the first place. Unless we can imagine solutions that exist outside the market, we are always going to be governed by it.

There is no way we can buy our way around the ludicrous contract our university has with Aramark. The problem is that we just act complacent when our institutions auction off basic necessities like food and education to private companies helmed by fat cats solely concerned with better earnings calls.

The world as it is now is not inevitable, though.

Students who will be here when that contract expires must take action against Aramark’s near-monopolistic hold on the U of M’s food culture.

One harrowing 2015 feature piece in the Manitoban describes students dreaming of this contract’s expiry date as a chance to move to a campus food system that is locally sourced.

In 2019, the Manitoban ran a comment article pointing out the University of Winnipeg’s food services system is a living example of the community-oriented one we could have had.

Do what your predecessors did and talk to your peers. Student populations change completely every few years, so knowledge about how the university works can easily be lost between generations.

Get to know the people around you, find students who care, try to win over the ones who don’t and work together to build up some sort of vocal and visible opposition to the campus food culture we have. Make sure the next generation of students does not lose this information.

When April 2024 arrives, someone here has to care about keeping these central elements of student life out of the hands of profiteers with singular goals of plumping up their revenues. When the time comes, will you let Aramark have its cake and eat it too?