Cost concerns about consumables

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By: Johnny Barrett, Opinions Editor

Pocket pinching is not an uncommon experience for today’s college student, but when it comes to food, students are willing to splurge.

The cost of board for an Illinois Wesleyan student is $2,053 per semester, which goes to Sodexo America LLC. Illinois Wesleyan has been in a partnership with Sodexo for over 40 years, according to Dean of Students Karla Carney-Hall. “So what happens in the food service business, in general, is that there’s typically a contract period,” Carney-Hall said of IWU’s contract with Sodexo.
“It’s kind of an industry standard that there is a contract period and then because the food service provider makes an investment in the facilities, they need to make their revenue to cover the costs of those investments and facilities. And so anytime there’s a new investment in the facilities, then there’s kind of an extension of the contract or a least there’s an extension of the partnership that suggests that, for them to make back their money on that, the partnership will continue.”

Students often complain about the quality of the food, as well as the short hours that some options are open according to The Argus’ recent survey. So apart from the recent renovation costs that incurred before any of the current IWU students starting attending, where is our money going?

To look further into this question, it is important to first get a taste of Sodexo’s history.
The most recent renovation Sodexo made on IWU’s campus was their overhaul of the Dugout in 2013, which would constitute the school’s most recent “extension.” Other institutions have had ongoing financial issues with the corporate giant, which SourceWatch, an investigative reporting organization out of Madison, Wisconsin, lists on their website. According to SourceWatch, Sodexo has been in trouble for overcharging New Jersey public schools for workers pay and insurance by exploiting loopholes in the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Requirements.

The United States military also cut contracts with Sodexo after finding evidence of price-gouging among other things like health safety violations.An incident that was a little more relatable to the college student was the recent cutting of contracts from 11 different universities for Sodexo’s poor management of private prisons.

It is common in today’s world for transnational corporations to profiteer with little consideration to the human cost of what they’re doing or the people which they service.Sodexo, a corporation that earns 9.5 billion dollars per year in revenue according to their website, is not different in this regard. This is evidenced by their issues with overcharging in the past and underfunding of their charity called the “Sodexo Foundation,” which only received 0.01 percent of the company’s total earnings in 2011.

At Illinois Wesleyan, however, there are some pretty egregious examples of profiteering just in the price margins on individual items. For example, if you were to go to WalMart today and pick up a bottle of Hidden Valley ranch dressing, it would cost you $3.48 before tax. This regular sized bottle contains 24 fluid ounces of dressing. Imagine now that it’s wing wednesday here on campus, and you want a side of ranch with your wings. The two ounce cup of ranch costs $1.45, making it five times more per ounce.

Each meal swipe costs the student $17.74 per meal, based on the 2017-2018 cost, the Block Plan 220 and assuming all this money actually goes into the food. With the current minimum wage sitting at $7.25 an hour, someone would have to work over two hours just to earn one meal. That’s six hours per day that college students just don’t have. To put $17.74 into local perspective, a person can get two and a half pounds of wings from Mugsy’s for less.

But, when looking at the price of on-campus dining it is important to look at value rather than just cost.
“When people are asking about cost, what they’re really asking about is value. It’s partially cost, but there’s something you feel like you’re not getting that doesn’t make what you’re paying worth it,” Carney-Hall said. “That’s when we want to come back to that value question. How do we make you feel that there’s good value for the money that you’re spending?”

Sodexo refused to comment on their contract, but based on a frequently asked questions document about Ithaca College’s contract with the food provider, a few answers became clear. This document emphasized that costs are so high because of paying all full-time staff at living wage or above. It also stated that although it is better for a student’s budget to purchase food at a local vendor instead of through campus dining services, funds spent off campus don’t go back into the college’s system, which is bad for Sodexo employees.

Ithaca College pays Sodexo a set amount each year, but any income from purchases at through dining services goes back to the college. If this is also true on IWU’s campus, it begs the question of why IWU has not responded to the documented student distaste and used that money to improve the quality of the food.

“I think we’re always open to student feedback,” Carney-Hall said.“The food service committee is the first step to saying if we have really quality conversations about what we’d like to see and if Sodexo is non-responsive to those concerns, then I think we’d have to say we’ve got to look at our options. So I think our first step is always to start with let’s identify what the problems are and work towards a solution with our current partner.”

A comparable company to Sodexo that has been lauded for its quality in the past is the Bon Appétit company.
This alternative food provider is entirely farm-to-fork (fresh products that aren’t processed), locally sourced and ecologically sustainable. They were on Princeton Review’s Best College Food list and have received recognition from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the National Resources Defence Council and The Humane Society of the United States, making them a great alternative option for IWU students.

Bon Appétit has a distinct commitment to ensuring the rights of the farmers that source their food, and the employees that work for them. In 2001, they supported the Oregon farmworker’s boycott of a food packaging cooperative that refused to negotiate fair labor regulations with them. They protected the rights of tomato-pickers in Florida who were working in unfathomable conditions, and “forged a new agreement that frames acceptable working conditions and enforces those conditions with a strict code of conduct for tomato growers” (bamco.com).

The key to understanding this issue is that there are vast alternatives without the history of profiteering and workers rights violations that Sodexo carries with it. While it may seem a stretch to the average student, 11 universities cut ties with Sodexo in one year. It’s not the only option, but it’s among the options.