Sodexo at Hampshire College: a necessary contradiction of collective values? by Graham Jeffries

Mounting criticisms of our global food system present many difficult issues about the social and environmental implications of our diets. These costs often go unseen to the consumer, obscured by the complexity of actors and trade in the food system. If long-term and accountable food production is a goal worth pursuing, the present moment demands a recognition of hurdles and compromises requisite along the path of transition.
Known for its politically charged and socially conscious student body, Hampshire College must compromise its values to survive financially. Perhaps the clearest example of this, and the focus of this article, is the case of food services on campus. Sources of prepared food on-campus are limited to two Sodexo locations and the school store, or “Hampstore” for those not repulsed by the title’s anemic creativity.
Neither Sodexo or Follett (the school store’s management company) are particularly commendable for their corporate ethics. In fact, Sodexo has received much criticism for its historic involvement with the privatized prison industry, and both firms contribute to the consolidation of influence in the food distribution market. Currently Sodexo provides services to 84 prison facilities: 39 in the Netherlands, 17 in France, and 3 in Chile among others. Until 2001, Sodexo (then Sodexho) had significant investments in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest US for-profit corrections corporation. Pressured by the “Dump Sodexho” student campaign, they divested from CCA in 2001, but not before hearing from 60 campuses and losing seven contracts from schools including Oberlin College, American College, and University of Wisconsin- Madison. Sodexo has since incorporated two prominent for-profit detention corporations in the UK and Australia. Facilities under these groups have been charged with overcrowding, sub-standard sanitary conditions, and, in one instance, jailing children as young as four. Even though these charges do not bear Sodexo’s name, shouldn’t the parent company come under fire in consideration of Hampshire’s “socially responsible investment” policy?
But before cursing the musty statute of Hampshire’s values for its complacency, it is important to recognize the institutional appeal of Sodexo’s services, which landed them a contract renewal in 2008. At Hampshire’s founding, campus buildings were constructed on a budget (evident in their Cold War styling) and the dining commons are no exception. Fiscal constraints paired with a shortsighted outlook on Hampshire’s growth lend hereditary challenges to food service. Structurally, the kitchens and storage capacity at the dining hall and The Bridge are too compact for the volume of food demanded. The two major implications of this are 1) food must be delivered often (multiple times a week), and 2) less prep space means less in-house cooking from scratch. This is a smaller issue for Sodexo than many other food service providers. Keep in mind that this is a company that runs food service on off-shore drilling platforms, arctic research labs, and other locations equally extreme as our campus kitchens.
For better or worse, Sodexo can also undercut prices of other companies like Bon Appétit and Chartwell’s (both owned by the Compass Group, both considered to replace Sodexo at Hampshire). In part, this is a result of their influence in the political economy of food service. Strategic alliance with major distributors including Sysco (arguably the largest in N. America) gives them a bottom line advantage. A recent lawsuit revealed that they receive 59% lower prices from a liquid egg producer compared to distributors wanting to carry the same product.
Barring an unexpected burst in Hampshire’s meager endowment Sodexo is likely to be around for a while. While Hampshire students swallow the repugnant taste of the prison-industrial complex, they must remember that through community there is voice. Colleges and universities spend over $4 billion on food service each year through companies like Sodexo and Aramark. While reform is not refutation and consumer demand presupposes consumption, a degree of pragmatism is due under these circumstances. Let’s think transition. For the dining commons, this may mean sacrificing selection for simplicity. Rather than four pies and a cake from a bag, what about one batch of from-scratch goodness?
Hampshire, just as any individual, is forced to make compromises between its ideals and the cold, burdensome economic realities of our contemporary era. These differences can be striking in an environment that fosters a “progressive” academic and social community. The obvious challenge is one of moving beyond abstract notions of justice, equity, and democracy and integrating them into the institutional structure- and ultimately into our daily lives and sustenance.
“If success or failure of the planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… How would I be? What would I do? “ – R. B. Fuller
Perhaps more important yet, What will we be? What will we do? Opportunities surround each of us at every moment, in the world and within the Hampshire community. At one point in time, Mixed Nuts, the student-run food co-op at Hampshire, and Stone Soup, a soup-and-bread group, consistently provided for half of the campus’s food needs. No contracts, no prisons, just relentless dedication and a vision of what could be. Presently, community food movements are bubbling with timely opportunities to make a difference. Is our society ready to reengage with our collective needs and values and follow suit with intentional action? It’s your choice.

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This entry was posted in Environmental: Food, Land, Water and Leaves, Issue # 1 February 2010, Social Constructions. Bookmark the permalink.

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