Boycott Aramark Protest // Photo by Claudia Cooper
On Friday, March 8, Shred the Contract held a boycott of all Aramark eateries on campus in order to make a statement to Western’s administration. Their message was clear: stop contracting with Aramark and find a way to start a self-operated dining system.
Shred the Contract walked through Old Main to the office of Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey to discuss the boycott and provided Huskey with a list of demands.
“The focus of [the boycott] is to expose the ties between our food system, not only here at the university, but focusing on the university exposing the ties between our food system and the prison industrial complex in this country,” Shred the Contract group member Matt Svilar said.
Aramark owns all of the dining halls on campus, Miller Market and The Atrium. Starbucks, Panda Express and Subway are run through the purview of Aramark.
“Aramark contracts with a pretty large number of private prisons to serve food,” Svilar said. “In that process, they end up recruiting people who are incarcerated for essentially unpaid labor: be it farm work, be it food service.”
Western, New York University, Concordia University, University of Central Oklahoma, Scripps College and Barnard College are boycotting against the three big food service companies, Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group, according to Svilar.
Before the boycott event, an open letter to student workers was put together by Shred the Contract. Svilar said the point of the letter was to clarify that Shred the Contract is boycotting and criticizing Aramark as a company, and that criticism wasn’t aimed at the student workers.
In fact, Shred the Contract actively seeks justice for student workers at Aramark who have experienced discrimination or harassment, according to the letter.
“We recognize that you are an essential part of our dinning system at Western, and it is very important to us that we prioritize the voices and needs of dining workers in this campaign,” Shred the Contract said in the open letter. “The food system that we seek to create cannot exist without justice for workers.”
There is a higher number of undocumented immigrants and people of color incarcerated in the private prison system, and Aramark is known for using their labor at disproportionate rates, according to Shred the Contract’s website.
Eli Ferate, a student who participated in the boycott, said he hoped that this event will raise student awareness on Aramark ties with labor and prison industrial complex and the long term impact of this will be that Western does not renew their contract with Aramark.
“Aramark is profiting of the backs of undocumented immigrants,” Ferate said, referring to the private prison labor Aramark contracts with. “The private prison system is not only exploitive, but inherently racist. Western contracting with Aramark is profiting off that system.”
It was no coincidence that the boycott was held on International Women’s Day, according to Svilar.
“The majority of women incarcerated in prison are survivors of domestic violence and on top of that, the prison system exploits them for their labor,” Svilar said.
According to Svilar, Shred the Contract does not have an issue with the quality of the food as much as they have an issue with the company’s unethical practices.
Grant Thomas, a first-year student, said that participating in the boycott and demonstration opened his eyes.
“[Aramark] is way bigger of a problem than I anticipated of how people are being exploited, whereas I just thought this was about being served bad food,” he said.
Margaret Thompson, a first-year student participating in the boycott, thought it was alarming that students are trying to solve these issues and not Western.
“I think this is something the university should explore more because they’re the ones that are paying for this,” Thompson said. “I’m held accountable too. I have a meal plan, I eat on campus a lot.”
In order for student to avoid eating at campus dining halls and other food services that are run by Aramark, organizers of Shred the Contract offered free food in Red Square in order to keep students from supporting Aramark today.
They also encouraged people participating in the boycott to support Vendor’s Row instead of eating at Aramark-owned businesses. According to Svilar, they handed out flyers to the vendors to let them know that there might be an influx of customers.
Emmaline Bigongiari, an organizer of Shred the Contract, held a livestream in Red Square to show students how they are boycotting the dining system.
“We want a self-operated dining system,” Bigongiari said. “[Western] would hire [their] own staff without Aramark in the middle.”
The students made their way to Huskey’s office to speak with her about their demands.
“If we determine that self-op is an option, that will be a set of processes because we do have to decide if that is a best option for us as an institution,” Huskey said.
Western is looking into hiring consultants on what it would take for Western to transition from a contracted system to a self-operated dining hall before Aramark’s contract renewal in 2021, according to Huskey
If Western does decide to keep dining services contracted, Huskey said she would have students be more involved on the decisions made for our dining services.
“We would have students serve on the committee that would set the parameters, choose the criteria and be part of that process,” Huskey said.
According to Huskey, she previously worked at Washington State University as interim vice president for student affairs where she oversaw WSU’s self-operated dining services, but has never been involved with a transitions from a contracted system to self-operated.
When students asked Huskey about how Western holds responsibility with Aramark’s ties with prison industrial complex, Huskey said that the institution does recognize responsibility of Western to consider the impacts of contracts that the school enters into.
“I think our schools plan is very clear about our responsibilities to make decisions that are ethically aligned with our values,” Huskey said.
The organization then shared their demands that Western and the five other schools participating in this boycott want met by administration. These demands include a break from the prison industrial complex, upholding worker’s rights for current dining services employees, prioritizing student involvement and supporting the Real Meals campaign, which would allow more local and sustainable food to be served in the dining hall.
The organization asked if Huskey could commit to any of these demands presently.
“No, I think that would be premature,” Huskey said. “I can certainly commit to being transparent about how this process will unfold and in what way student forces will be included.”
About 30 percent of campuses in the U.S. have self-operated dining system, according to Shred the Contract’s website. Bigongiari said having a self-operated dining system is uncommon, but possible.
Shred the Contract has been in contact with administration for a few years regarding their concerns with our contract with Aramark, but March 8 is the first time they have asked for a commitment to follow the list of demands the organization has given.
The main concern when it comes to becoming a self-operated dining system is money, but it’s up to the administration to prioritize food costs, Bigongiari said.
“There is no room for local and sustainable vendors because of Aramark,” Bigongiari said.
If Western’s dining hall became self-operated, it would allow chefs to have more freedom with what they prepare, as they currently must cook the recipes which Aramark provides, according to Shred the Contract’s website.
According to Svilar, if Western’s dining halls become self-operated, one of the demands would be that current employees would be able to keep the jobs they already hold.