Opinion: Say no to Sodexo

Will Chaney is a sophomore economics major from Bridgeton, Mo.
Will Chaney is a sophomore economics major from Bridgeton, Mo.

This editorial originally appeared in the April 14 issue of The Index as part of the Head to Head column, featuring two columnists’ opposing views. To read Holly Fisher’s piece about the positive aspects of Sodexo, be sure to pick up a copy of the paper on newsstands now.  

As sophomore Ben Wallis laid out in last week’s letter to the editor, the Sodexo corporation engages in many morally questionable business practices, to put it politely. It fires workers who try to unionize, operates and profits from five private prisons, and pays very low wages to its employees, many of whom rely on federal assistance despite working full time. Truman has not always had Sodexo and does not need its business to provide food. Our campus would improve if we let our contract with Sodexo expire in 2021 and transition to in-sourced food production from Adair County, run either by Truman State or a local entity that is democratically accountable to the community.

First, I would like to clarify I am not criticizing the Sodexo workers or management that staff Truman’s dining halls. They do a very good job with the resources they are given and are not at all responsible for Sodexo’s prison operations and union busting. If we transition to an in-sourced system, I would hope many of the same individuals would be rehired and offer their experience for the creation of a new system.

I don’t think Sodexo is run by bad people, nor is its fundamental problem the fact that it is a large, multinational organization. The issue is that it is organized as a capitalist enterprise where all of its operational decisions — what, how and where to produce — are made by only 14 individuals who sit on its board of directors.

There is no meaningful input allowed from employees or customers, who must live with the consequences of the board’s decisions. The most important consideration the board takes is not food quality, worker welfare or sustainability, but rather how much profit the company can earn. When Sodexo makes decisions that appear to show concern for the Truman community’s well-being, like the equal treatment of men and women in the workforce, promoting diversity or using cage-free eggs, it is just reacting to public pressures to maintain its image. We should not be deceived into thinking Sodexo is inherently good or bad, but instead recognize its capitalist structure allows a small group of people to make all of its decisions based on profit calculations, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sodexo’s record, however, reveals it makes bad decisions often, not have our interests at heart.

Much of the money students spend on meal plans flows out of our community and becomes the property of people who have no interest in Kirksville or Truman. One portion of this money is Sodexo’s operating profit, which last year was $1.3 billion, according to a November 2015 Market Watch article. The board of directors decides how to spend this money, so it is no surprise little is spent on projects or investments that benefit us. There are no sustainable Sodexo gardens or Sodexo-sponsored cooking classes, for example. Additionally, we pay for overhead costs that come with large multinational corporations, such as transportation costs, a substantial bureaucracy, an elite legal team, marketing propaganda, and the large salaries and bonuses of top managers in other countries. Furthermore, some of our money ends up funding improvements for Sodexo’s less legitimate operations, like its five private prisons, all without our knowledge.

If Truman ran its own food service program, these costs would evaporate and the goal would change from making money to improving the community.

Other universities have divested from food providers like Sodexo, and this is especially possible given Truman’s location. For example, Bowdoin College operates on-campus gardens, has a food cooperative and gets 34 percent of its food from local producers, according to an August 2015 Eco Watch article and Bowdoin’s food co-op Facebook page. Oberlin College began its locally sourced food initiative in 2001 and gradually increased the amount of locally grown food in its dining halls from 5 percent to 27 percent, according to the same article.

While these universities’ meal plans are about double what we pay now, the total cost of attendance is about four times that of Truman, according to their respective websites. The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a public university comparable to Truman, has 25 percent of its food grown locally and offers meal plans closer to what we are used to paying, according to the same article and the University of Illinois website. There is not enough information available to conclude that in-sourced dining services would be more or less expensive than Sodexo, but other colleges have proven such a transition is possible.

Truman is conveniently located in a very agricultural part of the world. Adair County farmers produce many different kinds of foodstuff, including grass-fed meats, cheese, honey, and various fruits and vegetables, according to the Northeast Missouri Action and Compassion

Team farmer directory. If we start transitioning now and work until Sodexo’s contract expires, Truman has enough time to discuss these options with Adair County’s farmers. By using local resources, we would stimulate the local economy and create a tighter bond between Truman and Kirksville. Our money would flow into our community instead of undesignated places overseas.