Aramark is on its way out the door after a host of controversies, including last year’s health inspection of Lipton Dining Hall and the racially stereotyped Black History Month meal at Downstein. These complaints were also accompanied by concerns from student activists over the company’s connections to the prisons. In light of all these events, NYU is set to begin negotiations with Chartwells, a division of Compass Group. It remains unclear if the switch will address all of the students’ concerns.
The first reaction to our dining hall meals being put out by the same company that provides meals to U.S. prisons might be one of discontent. How are we paying over $70,000 a year for tuition at a university where the meals we are provided — and required to have during our first year — are managed by the same company that serves the prison-industrial complex? But then we face a moral grappling — why should we immediately consider the food served at a prison as beneath us? Why should our prison systems be so thoroughly corrupted that something as basic as the food that prisoners are served is defined as deprivation?
The Detroit Free Press reported in August 2017 that a local prison kitchen worker was fired after refusing to serve moldy, rotten potatoes. The Marshall Project has written about the human rights investigation at Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Georgia, where prisoners were reported to be “starving” due to the measly size of the two meals a day they were served — a situation which led to prisoners eating toothpaste and toilet paper out of extreme hunger. And Aramark itself was caught in a firestorm in 2014 when maggots and larvae were discovered in a meal-serving line at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan. When 30 prisoners at the facility were medically treated for symptoms of food poisoning later in the week, a spokeswoman for Aramark made a public statement to argue that there is no proof that the food was the reasoning for the prisoners’ illness. Aramark’s role in the prison-industrial complex has been reprehensible, and it is important to remember that NYU made a positive choice by eliminating Aramark’s affiliation with the university, therefore divesting from a blatantly immoral organization.
However, Compass Group, the parent company of what is essentially NYU’s only other option for dining services, has also been criticized by student activists for ties to the prison industry. As reported by the Miami Herald, the company has been accused of several workplace safety violations as early as this past January. Connections to the prison industries — among several other issues looming over potential NYU dining providers — greatly concern the student body. Unfortunately, while there are a surplus of issues with food service providers, there are few realistic solutions.
Looking closely at the industry, there seems to be a never-ending cycle of controversy. All of the companies that initially made a bid to become NYU’s food service provider have some sort of connection to the prison-industrial complex. In response, student activists have pushed NYU to self-provide food and other services, eliminating the need for any outside corporation. While other universities have adopted this kind of system, Owen Moore, Assistant Vice President of Campus Services, has stressed that this wouldn’t be feasible, citing the potential cost of “millions of dollars.”
Regardless of its feasibility, self-providing services has already proven a problematic endeavor. Food service providers employed by the University of California went on strike multiple times last year, in protest of conditions and threats of outsourcing. Even if NYU could provide services the community needs, what would this mean for food accessibility? To compensate for the cost of self-providing services, the price we pay would most likely increase. Nearly 22% of students currently have difficulty affording food and more than 1,000 students have used NYU’s Courtesy Meal’s Program. With food insecurity this high, can we really say that the most ethical solution is the one that would worsen access to food?
Clearly, there is more work that needs to be done. Moving forward with Compass Group means continuing to work with a company that has hands in the prison industry. And while the concept of self-providing food services to university students does seem ideal on the surface level, it would increase in costs for students, potentially amplifying food insecurity. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that the school cannot provide affordable meals to students without a breach of ethics. We should not have to sacrifice our morality for the sake of cost-effective meals. NYU’s exorbitant tuition prices are notorious enough as is, but so is any university involvement with the causticity of the current prison system.
Aramark is out, and we should applaud the university for terminating a contract with an unscrupulous organization. But we should also remain cognizant of the fact that there is a complex issue in our midst, and that switching to a different provider is not going to wipe away the stains of our past experiences. We should take advantage of our movement away from Aramark not to make amends for our past involvement but as an opportunity to explore sustainable solutions. Ultimately, the only acceptable policy is an ethical and sustainable method for distributing the resources the community needs. Anything short of this may be a step in the right direction, but still just a step.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 1, 2019, print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]