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Friday, May 14, 2021

Students march against Aramark

Students and community members marched from Western’s campus through downtown on Sept. 2 to voice their concerns about the university’s contract with Aramark. // Photo by Suzanna Leung

By Suzanna Leung

Shouts echoed as roughly 50 protestors took to the streets with their signs and made their way from Red Square to Maritime Heritage Park. “What do we want? Food justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down!”

The Real Meals, Not Dirty Deals! march on Sept. 2 marked the end of a three-day food justice summit on Western’s campus run by the Real Food Challenge. According to its website, “The Real Food Challenge leverages the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair, and green food system.”

The event consisted of Western students, Bellingham community members and Real Food Challenge organizers from across the country. All converged for the march to oppose Western’s dining contract with Aramark, a food service company operating primarily in the cafeteria industry.

The event began with a sign-making session and progressed into the march. The group’s first stop was in front of the Viking Commons, where event organizers discussed Western and Aramark’s dining contract. From there, protesters chanted and marched down High Street and through downtown to the Whatcom County Jail to discuss Aramark’s hand in the prison system.

Aramark has dining contracts with jails across the country, and the Whatcom County Jail is one of them. Maggots were found in Michigan and Ohio correctional facilities contracted with Aramark. The Michigan incident resulted in 30 prisoners coming down with food poisoning, USA Today reported in 2014.

Local Michigan news website MLive reported two incidents of food violations by Aramark in 2015. In Saginaw County, Michigan inmates were served food from the trash, resulting in an Aramark employee being fired. In Kent County, Michigan inmates were served rotten chicken in their tacos.

Fourth year Fairhaven student Emmaline Bigongiari helped organize the Real Meals, Not Dirty Deals! march and food justice summit. She cited the incidents in Michigan and Ohio as reasons why Western shouldn’t align itself with Aramark. Bigongiari is also a member of a new student club, Students for a Self-Operated Dining System that is launching a campaign called “Shred the Contract” to end Western’s relationship with Aramark.

“We recognize that a lot of Aramark’s practices don’t match [Western’s] values. We have the same food service provider, and yet we know the food that students are getting compared to the food that incarcerated people are getting are vastly different,” Bigongiari said. “We as a student group feel that Aramark profiting off of these prisons is really reflective of how they operate overall as a company.”

As the protestors stood outside the Whatcom County Jail and chanted their support for the prisoners, inmates let them know they heard by banging on the walls of the facility.

Students chant at the Real Meals, Not Dirty Deals march and food justice summit. // Photo by Suzanna Leung

Mike Callicrate, a food and livestock producer from northwest Kansas, attended the event as a speaker on behalf of the Real Food Challenge organization. He has experienced the pressure of competing with big food corporations as a local farmer and seeks to expose the malpractices of the big food industry.

“If only people could taste the human exploitation in the food that they eat,” Callicrate said. “If only they could taste the environmental degradation in the food that they eat, and the animal abuse in the food that they eat, we wouldn’t have this problem. We have to inform people about the injustice in our food system.”

Callicrate also hopes to expose a practice that shuts out family farmers and ranchers from the market called “kickbacks.” The practice involves companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group promising exclusive purchase to food corporations, like Tyson Foods, in order to receive a bump in pay.

Callicrate advocated for a fair food system that treats animals well, cares for the

Emmaline Bigongiari address the crowd after organizing the Real Meals, Not Dirty Deals march. // Photo by Suzanna Leung

environment and pays workers legal wages.

Bigongiari and other members of Students for a Self-Operated Dining System continued to collect testimonials from students about Aramark’s exploitation of student workers on campus. Some of the testimonials involved sexual harassment by Aramark management and managers threatening to fire students if they didn’t work despite being sick. However, many Aramark student employees are scared to speak up, particularly those in higher positions.

The executive director of the Real Food Challenge, Anim Steele said the organization reached out to Aramark prior to the event but didn’t receive a response. He hopes one day Aramark will work with the Real Food Challenge to move away from big food.

“The cafeteria industry flies below the radar for most people. On the one hand, most people in their lives have eaten in a cafeteria. On the other hand, we don’t know what goes on behind the kitchen door,” Steele said. “We don’t get the sense that it’s a big industry, and now we’re waking up to that fact.”

Western is contracted with Aramark until Aug. 31, 2021. Until that time, Students for a Self-Operated System will continue their “Shred the Contract” campaign to keep the university from re-signing with Aramark after it expires. The club seeks to create a dining system that respects labor rights, uses local and sustainable foods in dining halls and has students at the forefront of deciding which foods are best. They also want to create a union for student workers while preserving Western’s current dining union.

“Food impacts all of us. Not just as students, just as humans. It’s a really powerful way to

A protester leads the call as participants take their march through downtown Bellingham. // Photo by Suzanna Leung

create change because it impacts all of us,” Bigongiari said. “We can also find food as a way to empower ourselves and start to recognize that we deserve different than what we’re being served right now.”

Participants available for media comment and interview at the march wore green stars on their name tags. All other participants were informed to direct all media to these specific organizers. Steele said this allowed those most excited about the issue to speak.

The Real Meals, Not Dirty Deals! march ended at Maritime Heritage Park with a debrief of the three-day food justice summit. Participants will go home after the event — to Kansas, to Colorado and many back to their Bellingham homes — with new knowledge on Western’s food system and how to change it for the better.


  1. Excellent article. Here’s some fuel for the fire. I ran into Aramark years ago as part of a student organization called the RHA at University of Hartford. The food there was obscenely expensive, even though it wasn’t very good. Their justification for the price was that it was serve more ala’ Cate and not buffet style. It was total bs.
    How did I know? I had recently played a concert at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania who was also served by Aramark. I ate in their cafeteria. I noticed that the food was exactly the same there but cost 3 times less at Mansfield than UHa. When I brought this point up the student board, appointed to renegotiate the contact with the food service giant, they simply regurgitated facts fed to them by Aramark and closed by saying they would NOT hear any further commentary on the matter. It was obvious that they had been coached by a corporate interest. Come to think of it, it’s very much like how our council and mayor bend over backwards to protect the big telecoms and other corporate interests.
    Why did they try to shut-down further commentary on behalf of Aramark? Because the students were all connected to higher ups at the university and the university received a big share of the profits from allowing Aramark to operate there. I’m sure a similar situation exists at Western.
    Before this, schools used to run their own cafeteria’s. This is still the best option for many reasons. The primary one being that it puts you in control of what food you will and won’t accept. If a provider is bad you can just switch providers. You don’t have to ask your corporate overlords for permission to do so, and it costs the same or less to do.
    You will hear the argument that this is too expensive. It will be a bunch of lies pushed by executives on the take and Aramark. Just do the real numbers and you can back yourself up. There are many examples like Haliburton running food services for our military in Iraq. The army used to have an army of its own cooks. Once Haliburton came in plates of simple food went from about $3 a plate to $20 a plate for the same food. If anything, the quality went down when Haliburton got involved. Who got rich? Dick Cheney, etc.
    It is very similar, from a corporate standpoint anyway, to how our local government protects big anti-net neutral, anti-first Amendment telecoms to the extent of even lying to the citizens about our existing network. Just like Aramark’s values obviously don’t ally with those of Western on the surface, the values of the big telecoms violate every ethical standard our City/County say they hold dear. Just like Western should refuse to do business with Aramark solely on the basis of its awful values, our governments should do the same with many of the companies they deal with. So why do they coddle them and lie on their behalf instead?
    In the background you have council members and staff that protect the big telecoms because a small amount of revenue flows in from these easily replaceable companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T that do an awful job. They do the same thing that the students did for Aramark above but for big telecom.
    The best solution, which is NOT to expensive, is a local solution that gives us better services and local self-reliance. That is true here too. The best solution is for you to go back to having Western run its own food services. I am sure, your corporately owned administrators will argue that it’s too expensive, but a company like Aramark will never do a good job and will never change.
    Start with finding out who is on the take at Western, and put pressure there. I leave you with the 3 arguments I expect you to encounter as you fight Aramark. Remember, big companies are ready for some pushback from time to time. Deep down, they know how awful they are and are prepared for it. Just look at Tyson, and they’re still in business.
    1. Western will try to calm you down by pulling you into a room either with Aramark reps. or with Western officials briefed by those reps. They will assure you that things will change. They won’t, but their hope here is to break up your support and coalition but stopping your momentum.
    2. If that doesn’t work, they will use corrupt news sources they own, like the Herald, to print propaganda articles about how wonderful the food services at Western, the prisons, etc. are thanks to Aramark They will say they “appreciate your commitment to food quality and will look into it.” At this point they will stop talking to you and nothing will happen. They will try to wait you out. They may also commission a study, using too small of a sample size, etc. which will turn out the result saying that on the whole Aramark’s services were actually above the standard in most cases. The City of Bellingham did this for Cocmast 6 years ago. Did you know that you are all basically in love with Comcast, and can’t wait to get services from them? Well, even though we all know that’s not true, that’s the way the study reads. Western will probably do something similar to protect Aramark. A Lies, damned lies, and statistics study that will paint Aramark in the best light possible.
    3. If they can’t wait you out after all of this they will discredit you.
    I can go on, but I’ve outlined the first 2 years of your fight for you. Unless you replace some leadership over at Western this is what to expect. Most of the baby boomers just can’t think of solutions that don’t involve giant corporations, and most of them are in control of our Universities now.


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