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 LeungSuzanna 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.
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
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
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.