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After 12 years, Aramark is out as food provider for WWU

Student activists hesitate to trust new company's promise of sustainable practices

Mid-afternoon sun beams down on the Viking Union in Bellingham, Wash. on June 30, 2023. Campus is quieter during summer quarter, though many students still rely on the six dining options open from June to August. // Photo by Meghan Fenwick

A new food services company, Chartwells Higher Education, will take over Western Washington University’s campus dining needs on Sept. 1 as the university ends a partnership with Aramark that has lasted over a decade. Western said the current Chartwells deal will not affect meal plans or other dining costs.

One of the deciding factors for choosing Chartwells was their existing contracts with local farmers, according to WWU News. The company plans to collaborate with Western’s Sustainability Engagement Institute in an effort to incorporate environmentally-friendly programs into university dining. 

Lindsey MacDonald, assistant director for SEI, said there is a culture of sustainability on campus, which drives initiatives like these.

“We think about sustainability with four pillars: environmental protection, economic vitality, social justice and well-being,” MacDonald said. “When we think about food systems and supporting local agriculture, we can really hit on a lot of that.”

In October 2022, University Residences led the search for a new dining company as Aramark’s contract was set to expire fall quarter 2023.

Leonard Jones, director of University Residences, led a series of focus groups to gather student feedback throughout the spring before a committee that included student representatives, administration and more. The group decided Chartwells would be the best fit for Western.

Despite Jones’s efforts, Sean Kaiser-Hakala, a member of Students for a Self-Operated Dining System, feels that this decision did not wholly represent the student body.

“From the outside looking in, it didn’t seem to us that the university made real, substantive and exhaustive attempts to involve students in the process,” Kaiser-Hakala said.

Calling for change

Aramark’s 10-year commitment with Western began in 2011 and first expired in 2021. It was then that Western decided to extend the contract until fall 2023. 

Students for a Self-Operated Dining System followed this development closely after advocating for a more ethical and sustainable dining option through their Shred the Contract campaign, which began in 2018. 

In 2021, the group sent a letter to President Sabah Randhawa and the Board of Trustees in which they denounced Aramark’s extension and bolstered the Associated Students’ request for an update to and proper implementation of the Sustainability Action Plan.

Led by SEI, the Sustainability Action Plan was written in 2017. A robust team of individuals dedicated time and effort into crafting the plan. While there had been no concrete plans to implement it at the time, the Sustainability Advisory Council has since been charged with its implementation, according to MacDonald.

“I think as the world has changed since 2017, there are going to be opportunities to make adjustments, updates, reprioritize regardless of who the dining services contractor is moving forward,” MacDonald said.

Students for a Self-Operated Dining System believe that a system in which the university solely owns and operates all campus dining facilities would better adhere to the Sustainability Action Plan. They feel this option would also resolve some of their main criticisms of Aramark and other corporate dining companies, those being: ties to the prison industrial complex, exploitation of their workforce and the environment, and the quality of food.

While second-year Kiya McGlothin found her freshman dining experience to be generally sufficient, she did experience anxiety in the dining halls as a student with a food allergy.

“I would always be super paranoid about if someone were to accidentally switch tongs between stuff that was served with peanuts and stuff that wasn't,” McGlothin said. “Also, crumbs get everywhere and if I were to just eat a crumb of a peanut I'd have a severe allergic reaction.”

Lingering doubts

Students for a Self-Operated Dining System released a public statement on June 27 expressing relief that Aramark has been replaced. However, the group is concerned with the history and current operations of Chartwells and their parent company, Compass Group Index.. 

“They're actively involved in providing dining services for extractive industries such as oil and gas,” Kaiser-Hakala said. “Those industries are directly fueling the climate crisis, as well as often infringing upon the rights of local landowners, but especially Indigenous people.”

Still, the organization was not surprised by Western’s decision. Universities often sign with Chartwells after their previous dining companies have been perceived to “drop the ball,” Kaiser-Hakala said. 

Kaiser-Hakala suspects that Chartwells’ contract will be a “bridging” contract, though it is yet to be finalized. A bridging contract would last five to 10 years in order to build capital and develop infrastructure for a self-operated system. 

In Canada, there have been similar patterns of signing with Chartwells before transitioning to self-operating dining among universities, according to a study by Canadian professors and researchers.

The study’s authors analyzed several universities' paths to self-operated dining and highlighted factors that might strengthen or hinder that process. The formula for a successful transition included, but was not limited to: willingness of the administration, support within the campus and local community and student-led research and food production.

Despite the hopes of Students for a Self-Operated Dining System for a similar transition, upfront costs are often a deterrent for self-operating dining. 

McGlothin said she sometimes prioritizes cost over sustainability, but her main priorities are to protect her own health and well-being. Students for a Self-Operated Dining System believe a self-operated system can better address such concerns, as well as food insecurity among students.

While MacDonald recognizes that sustainable choices can be inaccessible, she also hopes to shift the system so that people don’t have to make choices between ethically sourced food and cost. 

“Human well-being is part of [sustainability],” MacDonald said. “Sustainability is also about how you get calories in order to get up and be a good student and study.”

Carving a path to self-operation

Chartwells and SEI have yet to iron out the details of their collaboration. 

MacDonald said she looks forward to sourcing food from farms in Whatcom and Skagit County, and has ideas for reducing waste and emissions from dining operations. Just last year, she worked with students interested in using an anaerobic digester on campus to process food scraps to make fertilizer and provide energy. 

MacDonald said collective action among students is key in pushing for these innovations. She suggests engaging with students and other folks who share similar goals, including Chartwells and SEI.

“If I have an idea and I go try and convince people of it, it has a lot less sway than if I have a hundred students also saying, ‘Hey, we want this thing too,’” MacDonald said. “I think student voice is more important than a lot of students realize.”

Kaiser-Hakala has seen the university address many of the concerns that students have about their dining experience in the past year. He was happy to hear from administration that Chartwells plans to implement allergen-free options, and that their sustainability goals tend to align with the values of Students for a Self-Operated Dining System.

“Chartwells will have an employee on campus whose mission will be to understand student concerns and meet those concerns whenever possible,” said Jones, the director of University Residences.

While Students for a Self-Operated Dining System will have to await the finalization of the contract to act, they plan to continue to update their website and social media as well as host meetings for students to learn more.

“More voices chanting for the same message is much more powerful than a single loud one,” Kaiser-Hakala said.

Meghan Fenwick

Meghan Fenwick is a senior at Western Washington University and a campus reporter for The Front. She is majoring in environmental journalism.

You can reach her at

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