More than Facebook ‘likes’ required

I heartily applaud the efforts by Said Idoum, Malcolm Brown, and others to get more competition in campus food service. I used to work for Sodexo, so I’ve seen the company run one of its sites from the inside.

It’s a terrible firm that has a history of charging high prices for low-quality food around the world, paying dismal wages to its employees, and doing everything it can to keep employees from unionizing (these are particularly big issues where the state does not represent workers as well as in Europe). It takes a disgusting approach towards providing ‘food’ by turning the art of cooking into something for the assembly line, using ingredients that could come from anywhere, and where low cost is the only real criterion. The entire business model relies on taking a situation where competition is natural and benefits the customer – food service – and creating a monopoly by appealing to decision makers, like university and prison administrators, who won’t actually end up having to eat the food. It’s these monopolies that allow Sodexo to function the way it does, because competition would destroy it. And it will not allow these monopolies to be taken away without a fight.

It’s true that there have been nine boycotts of Sodexo at universities worldwide, but this is out of hundreds of universities the company serves, and these boycotts were to pressure the company on specific issues, like employee salaries and benefits. I’m not aware of any university group that has gotten a monopoly contract cancelled. In fact, according to its website, Sodexo retains 94% of its customers each year, demonstrating just how locked in a customer becomes once a contract is signed.

Because Sodexo has been playing its game for a very long time, it will require a larger commitment than liking something on Facebook. It’s great that the specific goal of getting more competition in food service on campus has been staked out, because that gives the movement some focus. But I was worried when I read the Delta article on the matter that Idoum and Brown haven’t seemed to be networking with any other groups on campus, such as the Delft International Student Society or the student government and faculty student societies, which are organizations already set up to facilitate change on campus. This would be a good next step, and can provide the issue with needed momentum, which is the biggest challenge to any change from students on a university campus.

What will happen over the summer? Is anyone staying on campus to continue working on the issue of Sodexo? How many people interested in this now will even be back next year? How many people can take time from their studies to make sure they save a bit of cash on food? My guess is that this will not be a priority for many students, because even though the situation is far from ideal, bad food at high prices is not as important as exams for most of us at TU Delft. This is an issue that should be taken up not just by passionate students, but by groups like faculty student societies, which have members devoted full-time to improving the university experience.

Idoum and Brown have clearly demonstrated that the passion for change to food service on campus is there, but focusing that passion long enough to enact change will be a challenge. I wish them the best of luck.

Devin Malone, a recent MSc graduate in industrial ecology, is from Anchorage, Alaska.

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