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Evergreen’s dining system reconsidered

With the academic year quickly approaching it seems appropriate to reevaluate the ways in which Evergreen has succeeded, or not succeeded, in employing practices that positively affect both those in the immediate college community as well as those in the greater Olympia region. Specifically, policies and practices regarding the campus food system.

The subject of a self-operated campus dining system is not a new topic to those within the Evergreen community. In the past decade there have been both student led and college organized efforts to initiate dialogue and begin actualizing a food structure more aligned to the college’s mission statement. Included in this mission is an acknowledgment that Evergreen “…supports and benefits from local and global commitment to social justice, diversity, environmental stewardship and service in the public interest.” As an institution that prides itself as a proponent of progressive practices, the concept of self-operation presents itself as the nearly obvious option.

Contracted Services

Unfortunately, since the college’s inception in 1971 dining services have been contracted out to corporate food providers. Within the context of large facilities, whether public or private, this practice is the standard. For the most part it is a matter of convenience. Operating an institutional or large scale food system entails multiple areas of expertise which requires more specifically trained employees.

Contracting out to a company that specializes in high volume food production removes an initial financial and structural burden from administrations. In this type of business agreement the responsibility of hiring and internal management is placed on the contracted company. A dining director is appointed and trained by the outside company. All produce and ingredient ordering is handled by an employee who orders through suppliers the company has a contract with. This may consist of a few national suppliers or it may encompass a more diversified group of local and regional businesses. Through the current contract the only non-financial service the college is responsible for is providing janitorial and maintenance/repair services to the spaces Aramark rents from Residential and Dining Services in the College Activities Building.

The model of contracting services certainly has its drawbacks. Because of purchasing rights Evergreen does not have the authority to direct a company as to who and where to source its product from. Language included in the current contract does ask that Aramark (Evergreen’s current dining service provider) make a concerted effort to source from local and regional producers, to an extent which is financially viable, but leaves the details of which undefined. This ultimately leads to easily misconstrued benchmarks and accomplishments. The focus on sustainability and local sourcing within dining services, a topic very prominently flaunted online, provides an example of this.

On the Evergreen’s Food Sustainability website, local is defined as the Pacific Northwest with a focus on a 150 mile radius of the school. I note this because Evergreen’s Sustainability Council initiated a goal of 40% local and/or organic food being served on campus by 2010. According to the Aramark-operated campus dining website this goal has been met, but to refer to this as a true accomplishment is misleading. The way this achievement is worded is very important to acknowledge. The goal is technically met regardless of how far the product has to travel as long as it is organic. Alternatively, this holds true if purchases are made locally irregardless of the conditions in which the product was grown or what certifications it may or may not have. Even more disconcerting is that there is no clarification as to whether this was intended to be, or is, a percentage of food by weight or as a percentage of total dollars spent. The latter of which dramatically diminishes the magnitude of this achievement.

As a state institution, Evergreen is required to provide an equal opportunity for companies to bid on contracted services through a request for proposal (RFP). RFPs are a detailed set of desired practices which the potential companies agree to carry out. The RFP committee is a group consisting of students, staff, and faculty with the intention being that the final RFP will mirror the values of the community it is representing, but also that it will benefit the college’s financial and business goals. This list of proposed wishes does not provide a guarantee that a company will be able or willing to abide by the criteria, but it does set a minimal baseline to work from. In addition, the VP of Student Affairs is an ex-officio member of the committee but along with the VP of Finance and the college’s Board of Trustees ultimately has the power to veto whichever decision or recommendation the group comes to if they feel it is not the in Evergreen’s best financial interest.

Self-operation

Primarily, self-operation is a dining structure that allows a school to have appreciably greater decision-making ability over ingredient purchasing, employee management, price setting, and policy making. The current structure essentially offers no voice to the Evergreen community and only minimal authority to even the administration. Contracted dining service providers have virtually unrestrained freedom to purchase and use ingredients from suppliers that may not follow practices the community supports or for the most part is even aware of. Created is an environment that does not invite inquires about the food being consumed. In addition, this system ensures an environment in which the contracted corporation can hire and fire workers as they see fit. This power structure nurtures a dynamic within the campus employee population in which those working for campus food services are solely vulnerable to layoffs due to corporate downsizing and not necessarily an ability to carry out their assigned position.

Albeit not an inherent characteristic of self-operated dining services, many schools that have made the transition have done so in order to support producers and suppliers that employ practices with greater commitment to, and understanding of, environmental and ethical standards. In practice what this often amounts to is a shift in purchasing from national food suppliers that buy in bulk for the lowest cost to local and regional farms. Businesses such as the well-known distribution company Sysco, which has a “Master Distribution Agreement” with Aramark do not buy directly from farms. They purchase through brokers who serve as the negotiator between industrial scale producers and the company that physically delivers the product to the end user.

A closer locale of producer does not necessarily ensure more humane treatment of animals or agricultural practices that focus on long term soil health. But by having the authority to decide not only where, but with whom the college does business the option to support independently-owned farms that place the health of their land, animals, and greater community as a central focus is opened up.

Unfortunately, it cannot be assumed that a self-operated dining infrastructure would place more decision-making power within the student population. What removing the corporate hierarchy does have the potential to create is a space for more fluid systems to evolve. Furthermore, in an optimal dining structure a more direct avenue for student-led involvement is offered via closer proximity and hopefully (though not definite) more open access to those authorizing decisions.

A concern that has been voiced by various members of the Evergreen community is the need for a succession clause to protect the jobs of food service workers on campus. This work force is comprised of private employees and, as such, is not guaranteed their position if there is a change in contracted food service. The college cannot force a company to employ certain people, regardless of their seniority or experience. Adding a succession clause to the RFP would require any future company to interview current employees, but would not guaranteed them employment. Although opening up the potential for current workers to retain their jobs is certainly a positive step, creating a policy in which those who have been adequately carrying out their work must interview for their own jobs should not be regarded as morally superior. It is simply a marginal step in the direction of more just conditions for workers.

In addition, because these employees work at a state institution they are entitled to unionize through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). As Evergreen policy stands, unionization is only allowed if the contracted company authorizes it, which they are not obligated to. All three of the main food service providers (Aramark, Sodexho, and Compass Group [Bon Appetit, Chartwells]) allow for unionization among their employees but leave it up to corporate representatives to ultimately make the decision with institutional administrators.

Previous Efforts

There have been attempts by the college to explore other dining service models. The Food Service Design Disappearing Task Force (DTF), a group of staff, faculty, and students, was originally organized by the Finance and Administration in the fall of 1998 to research and form a set of redesign plans for the college activities building. Over the course of the 2000/2001 school year the Food Service DTF was given the charge of researching and recommending new campus dining frameworks for fall 2001 and beyond. The DTF compiled three models which included the current business contract structure, self-operation, and an interagency agreement (such as having South Puget Sound Community College manage operation). These were assessed by the criteria: time frame necessary to implement, community impact, ability to meet all of the college’s needs, financial implications to the college, pros/cons, and political implications. All of the details are presented in the DTF’s final recommendations, which is available through a search on the Evergreen website.

With the assistance of Fessel International Hospitality Consultants and another dining service consulting firm, the disappearing task force determined that self-operation was not feasible for the following school year but did come to the conclusion that an entirely self-operated campus dining system was the best model for Evergreen and the community. The DTF realized that a “healthy food service operation must reflect the unique taste and interest of the institution to which it serves…It is the view of the DTF that a self-operated food service will best provide this undertaking to Evergreen.”

Their conclusion was that more research into dining service models was needed, and within the following 2-3 years a new DTF should have continued the task of developing a food system. This recommendation was not received by the college. In the decade following the Food Service DTF there have been no substantial structural changes to Evergreen’s practice of contracting dining services to corporations. In addition, since the DTF there has not been one group organized by the college and given the charge of researching and determining a dining structure that could more honestly mirror the community’s ideals.

Many of those working on food issues within Evergreen also feel very passionately about the need for a concrete Evergreen Food Policy. Envisioned is a set of regulations that would extend beyond what is laid out by individual RFPs. As it stands, there are no criteria for campus food that those affected can hold food service providers, and ultimately the administration, accountable to. A food policy would not simply equate to a broad mission statement. It would be a detailed timeline of purchasing goals and set of criteria that any potential vendor would have to abide by, lest they not want the college’s business. This is not an original proposal; Evergreen’s Sustainability Council, the umbrella group accredited with the creation of the Campus Food Systems Working Group (CFSWG), previously laid out a detailed list of criteria which the school should abide to.

Where to go from here

If those with the recognized authority to condone change are not willing to support or aid in the process, to whom is the research necessary for a shift in dining service structure dependent on? Evergreen is fortunate in that it does have a Campus Food Systems Working Group to provide a structured forum for members of the community who’s energy is devoted towards food issues. Comprised of students, staff, and faculty who work with food matters in different areas on campus, the committee meets quarterly to share and discuss their efforts in advancing the college’s food system. Unfortunately, the group is limited in regards to its capacity. The time and energy needed to continue the charge of the DTF is extensive but not impossible for a group that is committed but also knowledgeable in the subject. This latter criteria circulates back to the question of who is responsible for this research.

The lack of receptiveness and follow through on the college administration’s behalf poses a valid concern. The DTF, supported by independently hired consultants, agreed that self-operation was the superior dining operation model for Evergreen. The group was formed by a college department, but the recommendations fell on deaf ears. To this the question begs: what is the most productive route of action if we are to obtain a dining system that would not only be of benefit to local producers but be more in line with Evergreen’s mission statement? There is support within the community, at least in spirit, for a change in campus food service. But what is the necessary scope and depth of support to access this collective strength and pressure the administration until the issue can no longer be ignored? Would this even convince them into supporting change? This path requires the assumption that the college does in fact place the community’s interests over ease of business.

The route of action I recognize as the most likely to succeed is to convince the administration of the financial and structural viability through presenting (yet to be carried out) research outlining in detail the process in which other campuses have transitioned and how their present dining systems operate. With respect to the previous efforts in bringing these issues to the Evergreen administration, this course of action appears to be the least attempted yet in my opinion potentially the most likely to succeed. It is also the route which requires the greatest depth of research and time commitment. Although the Food Service Design Disappearing Task Force researched dining models including self-operation, nowhere in the final recommendation does the committee explain the specific, necessary steps in making this structure function both during and after the transition. If the administration requires an assurance of financial security to so much as consider self-operation a realistic option, then that is what needs to be compiled and presented. To exhibit a legitimate, educated case for this model, analyses of the transitional process as well as the desired financial and infrastructural framework are necessary.

Information gathering regarding local producers is also essential. Evergreen is fortunate to be located in a region of the country with not only an extensive agricultural network, but one that already prospers from solid support both within the college and Olympia/Thurston County community. A report of how much individual local and regional producers would be able to supply the college with is absolutely necessary. If the desired campus food system is one which not only benefits the immediate Evergreen community but respects the farmers in the area this information is critical. For this to be a worthwhile endeavor there first needs to be a summary compiled which details the amount of products: vegetables, fruits, grains, cheeses, meats, etc. used by dining services measured in poundage and not in total dollars spent. Even with access to invoices, knowledge of prices paid for certain products will not provide researchers with usable data since the current company purchases mainly from national wholesale suppliers.

Final Thoughts

By contracting out food services to transnational corporations Evergreen is not only dishonoring the original ideals which the college was based on, but essentially advertising a facade to potential students and faculty and the general public. This is not to discredit that which has put Evergreen into the national spotlight as an institution that sets a higher than average precedence for social, political, and environmental stewardship. But the funneling of student tuition to companies that directly benefit and sustain the industrial agricultural and military/prison complex can be not regarded as anything but hypocrisy.

The shift to a system that prioritizes the wellbeing of all humans, non-human animals, and biota intentionally and unwittingly affected over convenience is attainable, but it will only be possible if we as a community of students, but also as a community that operates in a larger system, are willing to accept responsibility. A responsibility not for the current system we all partake in, for systems are not perpetuated solely by those who are aware of and actively exploit their participation in. Systems retain their strength through those who don’t question or act on this weariness of the dominant system. What needs to be acknowledged and accepted is our potential role to each be agents of change and create a new system.

Ben Panish is currently studying food systems and political economy at Evergreen. He co-coordinates the Campus Food Coalition and is a member of the Campus Food Systems Working Group and Flaming Eggplant Board of Advisors. This article is an excerpt from a report entitled The Past, Present, and Future of The Evergreen State College’s Campus Dining System: ContractedDining Services to Self-Operation.

 

 

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