By Oden Taylor & Jennah Booth
In a move that could reshape each Los Rios Community College District campus’s food services offerings, students, clubs and faculty alike have banded together in an effort to advocate against the district’s contract with its current food service provider, Aramark. Many believe the 10.5 billion dollar company has the district, its faculty and student population in an expensive chokehold that limits their food options and fundraising. Students also claim Aramark goes against the districts values by supporting a company allegedly associated with ICE detention centers and the prison industrial complex, among other controversies.
At ARC, Aramark oversees the campus cafeteria, Starbucks and the Subway. According to Mario Rodriguez, vice chancellor of finance and administration at LRCCD, the district has had its current contract with Aramark for the last five years, but has been contracted with the company since 2003.
Rodriguez, along with other sources, would not confirm how much Aramark charges the district.
LRCCD’s contract with Aramark ends in August 2020, opening up the bid for a new food-service providers, as well as the chance for Aramark to rebid and enter into a new contract with the district.
On Oct. 9, the student Aramark Committee, a branch of the Associated Student Body, made up of multiple ASB representatives from all four campuses, as well as several club leaders and students, held its first meeting to discuss grievances with Aramark and potentially prevent the district from re-entering into another contract with the company.
According to several members of ARC’s Aramark Committee, as well as students and faculty outside of the committee, the district’s contract with Aramark restricts clubs’ fundraising, lacks a variety of food options and doesn’t value the campuses’ efforts against climate change.
Many say they also believe the company goes against the political and social values of many students and faculty, in addition to ARC’s mission statement.
Aramark, which is contracted with many college campuses across the United States, provides meal services to over 500 prisons in the United States, according to its website.
In recent years, the company has faced complaints about maggots in its food along with other food-sanitation issues, drug trafficking and other employee misconduct, according to a 2017 PBS article documenting prison strikes.
In 2014, inmates at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center, a state prison in Jackson, Michigan allegedly found maggots while peeling potatoes, according to Michigan Radio.
“Aramark has had a number of serious issues since it took over as the prison system’s food service provider,” Michigan Radio reported. “The company was cited for food shortages, under-staffing, and employees’ smuggling contraband into prisons, among other things.”
This year, New York University did not renew its 35-year-plus contract with Aramark following a failed New York City Department of Health inspection “which found evidence of mice, filth, flies and hot food held at less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to the Washington Square News, NYU’s independent student newspaper.
“[NYU’s] decision followed an incident in which a racially insensitive menu featuring “watermelon water” was offered during Black History Month and months of student activists protesting Aramark’s connections to private prisons,” the Observer, Fordham University’s student newspaper, reported in October, citing the school’s own grievances with Aramark.
In 2017, a Fordham student allegedly found a dead mouse in a salad container, which had been prepared by Aramark employees, according to the Observer.
Aramark has also been criticized for its alleged involvement with ICE detention centers, a connection which Karen Cutler, the company’s vice president of communications and public affairs, denies, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article that reported on protests against ICE in May.
“A government website that tracks federal spending shows that, since 2005, Aramark has had 108 contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees multiple immigration agencies,” the article reported. “The company had multiple agreements with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which supervises legal immigration, but only a few, for small amounts, with ICE or with Customs and Border Patrol.”
ARC President Thomas Greene issued a statement in an email to the Current regarding the many grievances against Aramark. In it, Greene said he was encouraged by the amount of involvement the campus had taken in the upcoming bid.
“We know that there are a lot of important parts to this conversation, including the quality and cost of the food that is available, the variety of options for students, the source and nutritional quality of food options, as well as, importantly, the type of company that we choose to partner with,” Greene wrote.
According to Jamie Ruggles, director of accounting services for Los Rios, when LRCCD entered into the contract with Aramark, which was the only bidder at the time, they did not seek out or receive any community input.
In order to better address community concerns regarding the new vendor contract, Rodriguez said LRCCD is working with Envision Strategies, a food service consulting firm, which plans to facilitate focus groups and ultimately aid the Board of Trustees in deciding on a new contract and potential vendor.
LRCCD, in collaboration with Envision Strategies, is currently in the process of creating a vendor evaluation committee, made up of faculty from different areas of the district, as well as one student representative from each college campus, Rodriguez said.
On Nov. 14, LRCCD and Envision Strategies held their first focus group at ARC, facilitated by Eric Lenard and Ruggles. During it, ARC staff was invited to express its frustrations with Aramark and what they would like to see from a new contract and vendor. While students were welcome, the meeting was only advertised to staff through a faculty email.
Many attendees brought up concerns regarding the pricing and quality of the food, while others brought up personal and moral grievances with the company.
Alejandra Fernandez Garcia, a student personnel assistant for the ARC Pride Center, addressed the ethical concerns of Los Rios contracting with Aramark.
“This district, and more specifically our campus, has directly said that they support undocumented students and people, eployees and staff members,” Garcia said. “[H]ow can we say we support these members of our community and then welcome them to campus, and they’re eating the food that is directly part of their oppression … No wonder [the food] tastes horrible to everybody, because it tastes like the prison industrial complex.”
According to Maria Elena Sepulveda, an ARC sociology major and member of Latinos Unidos and the student Aramark Committee, ARC has provided its own share of complaints against the Aramark management on campus.
Supulveda told the Current that she had a bad interaction with ARC’s Aramark manager after reaching out to Starbucks corporate. She brought up her concerns with management at the LRCCD Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 16, as well as at the focus group meeting on Nov. 14.
“I would say my biggest concerns are the infringements on the students, their clubs as well as the exploitation of the student employees … as well as the management,” Supulveda said at the meeting. “The management is very rude and seriously needs to be replaced on this campus.”
One former Starbucks employee and ARC student, who wished to remain anonymous because they were concerned about retaliation, filed a formal complaint with the college in 2016 after experiencing what they described as discrimination from Aramark managment, which led to the termination of their employment with the company.
The former employee said their counselor encouraged them to follow through with a complaint to an ARC vice president, who then facilitated a meeting with the Aramark district manager but to no avail.
“No one told me that I had other resources … It didn’t make sense … It was the first time that I was basically taken out of my job for something that has nothing to do with the actual job,” the former employee said. “Los Rios didn’t do anything. ARC followed through with the emails, but after that, nothing else. Nothing happened.”
The former employee said they didn’t follow up on their complaints and avoided the Student Center because the experience was so emotionally damaging to them, it would trigger panic attacks.
“I felt that there were no options. I felt that the school couldn’t do anything about it,” they said. “Everybody from Los Rios that I spoke with said, ‘Well it’s not us. It’s Aramark. I can not do anything about it; it’s the contract.”
ARC’s Aramark Food Service Director Santa Singh responded to the Currents request for comment on Nov. 20, after the print publication of this article.
Singh said she was unaware of any mismanagement issues.
As the Aramark food service director, Singh said she manages the operation of the food court, Starbucks and Subway, as well as the contract with the Indian food truck, Tandori Bites, which she specified was brought to ARC by student-request.
“My role is to manage the operations of each location, including developing and executing strategies to meet our operating and financial goals,” Singh wrote. “I have also built a strong relationship with the College and prioritize their expectations in every decision that I make. In addition, I lead the team and ensure that we have the right people in the right place.”
Frank Gleason, Aramark’s district-wide manager, did not respond to the Current’s request for comment.
Along with complaints against management, ARC clubs have also struggled with Aramark’s contract because it restricts their ability to fundraise through bake sales, and other food sales.
The current Aramark contract states that “the college district hereby grants to Aramark the exclusive right to operate the Food Services Program at the colleges … Aramark’s exclusive right shall not extend to identified periodic student fund raising activities.”
Kuldeep Kaur, ARCs vice president of administrative services, serves as the liaison between the school and its food service provider, among other things.
“My role is to work with the assigned Aramark manager to meet college needs and expectations within the boundaries of the contract,” Kaur said in an email interview with the Current.
According to Kaur, it is the precedence between Aramark and the district that clubs are limited to eight events a year for food sales, although the contract does not explicitly list the number of club sale days.
On Nov. 14, the Transcendence Club decided to break the club fundraiser agreement with Aramark in order to raise money for its club and better serve the transgender community at ARC. They raised money by selling cookies and brownies that had been made by various queer students who are enrolled at ARC.
Transcendence Club President, Isidore Manes, said that they feel that the efforts of the club, as well as the Pride Center, to put on the bake sale are necessary for the betterment of LGBTQ+ students on campus.
Manes added that they believe that Aramark does not have the interest of students in mind and instead is only concerned with the money.
“The student body will not cave to Aramark’s facist and totalitarian demands,” Manes said, “I think that Aramark is absolutely corrupt and evil for what they are trying to do, they are trying to take advantage of students to make as much money as possible.”
According to the contract Aramark does not only restrict club fundraising but it also requires club and faculty to go through them to cater their events. Aramark brings in no revenue for the district according to Ruggles, in fact the company actually charges the district to cater events and their prices may not be competitive with off-campus options.
The Aramark contract is designed to allow both Los Rios Culinary Arts Programs to operate outside of Aramark’s exclusive rights as the district’s food service provider, according to Hospitality Management department chair Brian Knirk, who is also a member of the evaluation committee.
“Aramark has signed a contract with the district to supply food service to the colleges,” Knirk wrote in an email to the Current. “The educational programs are outside of that contract, the contact has stipulations regarding the culinary programs on the two campuses that have culinary programs.”
In addition to the issues presented regarding on and off-campus involvements and restrictions, the student Aramark committee also expressed grievances that Aramark’s policies are largely environmentally unsustainable.
Don Reid, chief sustainability officer for ARC, said ARC faculty and students alike have battled against Aramark for years.
“[Aramark has] a very strong sustainability website that talks about how ‘wonderful’ their efforts are around the country … We haven’t had any real movement [at ARC] on any of those efforts,” Reid said. “It doesn’t align with what they say on their website, and it doesn’t align with our goals on this campus.”
According to the contract, LRCCD has the right to pass on to Aramark any federal, state or local fees resulting from the event of excessive waste due to Aramark negligence.
Still, the contract does not hold Aramark to any environmental waste standards aside from “[urging them] to purchase and promote the use of environmentally friendly post-consumer waste products,” and “[encouraging them] to recycle food, packaging, and other items to the extent that there are available markets and outlets for the products and which meet state and local sanitation and safety regulations.”
While Aramark has the option to rebid for the LRCCD contract, which Rodriguez says they most likely will, he said there’s no way to tell the likelihood of Aramark winning the bid again.
According to Rodriguez, the district is advertising to the bid to multiple vendors in an effort to bring in more competition, and in turn, more wiggle room to negotiate the prices and terms of its vendor contract.
“That’s the power in going to the market,” Rodriguez said. “When we realized that, ‘Hey, look, we’re a big player in this industry. People should respect this and give us a really good deal for how much business we’re going to give them,’ we get substantial discounts.”
Still, Rodriguez added, the terms of the contract still have to be appealing enough for vendors to want to bid.
“We could load up these bids with as much specification as we want. One, we either have to pay for it, or two, we don’t get anybody bidding,” he said. “The goal is to make something broadly accessible that people will bid on. And then that way we get the best bang for buck.”
Despite community outreach, according to Ruggles, the future evaluation committees meetings will be confidential.
Until companies are able to bid and the Board of Trustees reaches a conclusion on who will step into, or continue, the role of food service provider for the LRCCD, Ruggles said the district will continue to do everything it can to receive community input.
“I mean, if I could tell you … everything’s gonna be free range and organic, there’s going to be nothing but bamboo straws, recycled materials and every employee of our vendors are all going to get twice the pay they had today, and great benefits. I would love to do that,” Rodriguez said, “At the same time, all of those things are going to come with a cost to our students.”
This article was updated since it’s original publication in print on Nov. 20, to include comment from ARC’s Aramark Food Service Director Santa Singh.