Contract cooking: students serve up alternatives to private food corporations on campus

When students entered Brown Hall in the fall of 2014, they were greeted by a completely new cafeteria, decorated with signs reading “nurture,” “nourish” and “savor” over various food stations. The excitement was palpable. But behind the glossy posters of rolling hills and farm-fresh food lies a multi-billion dollar industrial food corporation.

Chartwells Food Services had just renewed their contract with UNC Asheville, according to a 2014 university press release. The company provided $3 million worth of renovations in exchange for a 10 year commitment from the university. 

A subsidiary of Compass Group, Chartwells leads as a multinational corporation based in London, with operations in more than 50 countries. Compass Group, the largest contract foodservice firm in the world, brought in more than $28 billion in revenue last year.   

Emma Hutchens, North Carolina coordinator for the Real Food Challenge, said students may not see the connection with food provided in Brown Hall and the enormous corporation. 

“The thing that is interesting to me is that nobody’s heard of Compass Group. They don’t realize that company exists, much less that they control this much of the food system,” Hutchinson said. “There have actually been years in the past where Compass Group actually makes more money globally than McDonald’s per year.”

Incentives play a prominent role in Compass Group’s distribution of food. Hutchens said the corporate giant participates in “kickbacks,” a system in which other large companies, such as Tyson or Pepsi, offer rebates to Compass Group to place their brands in school cafeterias. Hutchens said the kickback system often results in high-sugar, low-quality food for students.

“These large companies like Chartwells Compass Group get these earmarks. They’re not really interested in doing the extra work that it takes to spend their money differently,” Hutchens said. “And business is like a sanctioned bribe.”

The Compass Group did not immediately respond for comment to The Blue Banner on this topic.

Critics of corporate food manufacturers, including Compass Group, often cite poor food quality as a complaint. Chartwells made headlines in 2014 when the Washington Post reported students at a Connecticut high school boycotted school lunches due to unsavory and sometimes moldy food. Many students took to social media to document and share their experiences, which led to assurances of change from Chartwells, according to the Washington Post

Jenna Ventrella, co-president of Active Students for a Healthy Environment, said UNCA can ensure quality food on campus by slowly shifting from corporate-controlled food providers to local and sustainable farms. Ventrella would like the university to implement the Real Food Challenge, a nationwide program which encourages schools to provide at least 20 percent of food that is organic, local, free-trade or humanely sourced. 

“I’ve always just been really passionate about food,” Ventrella said.  “I’ve heard so many students talk about how they hate the food on campus and I think this is a good way, or a good step in the right direction, toward getting better food on campus that actually nourishes us.”

Ventrella said multiple student organizations, including ASHE and the Student Environmental Center, have been negotiating with administrators to endorse the initiative. However, progress stalled due to concerns about cost and practicality. Ventrella said while cutting ties with Chartwells will not be easy, greater student involvement may lead to changes.

“We control the supply and demand of the food that we eat and students have the ability to break contracts with big institutions like Chartwells,” Ventrella said. “If we need to, we can break our contract and say, ‘We don’t want you on campus.’”

After much negotiating and pressure from student groups, administrators from UNC Chapel Hill agreed to sign on to the Real Food Challenge last fall. Alexandra Willcox, leader for the Real Food Challenge at UNC, said the move to more local food reduces the reliance on corporate foodservice providers. Although UNC still maintains its contract with Aramark, Willcox said purchasing certain foods regionally leaves a positive impact on the local economy. 

“Part of the result was convincing them of the importance of signing onto it as a state school because we need to support our state. We need to support our local community and I think it’s a symbolic step and we also saw ourselves as kind of paving the way for other UNC system schools and other North Carolina schools in general to sign a commitment,” Willcox said. 

In order for the Real Food Challenge to be implemented at UNC,  the organization chose to employ a number of strategies to show they refused to back down.

“We had to be very persistent to get the chancellor to sign the commitment. We started a series of weekly gifts that would symbolize different aspects of real food,” Willcox said. “A basket of local produce, local eggs. It was just a lot of work constantly, to be thinking about, ‘How do we keep this on her mind?’”

In comparison to Chapel Hill, UNCA’s “real food” quota is low. At only 2 percent, reported a 2014 study, the university purchases food such as sweet potatoes, kale and apples from local vendors, but still has a long way to go before reaching the Real Food Challenge requirement. 

Laura Lengnick, former director of Sustainability Education at Warren Wilson College, said the battle against industrial food providers at Warren Wilson has been raging for decades. Student protests against corporate food culminated in the 1970s, leading the school to agree to provide its student population of 400 with food sourced directly from campus-run gardens.

“The college agreed and said, ‘OK. Well, we’ll grow our own food. We’ve got a garden. We’ve got a farm. We’re just going to figure it out,’” Lengnick said.

Within only a few years, Lengnick said effort of providing self-produced food to students became more than administrators could handle.

“It takes a lot of skill to feed people three times a day, a varied menu, and make sure it’s safe. There’s a lot of things that go into providing dining services,” Lengnick said. “After a few years, I think maybe it went three years and then everybody agreed, ‘We don’t want to do this anymore.’”

Lengnick said while she sees the value and practicality of corporate food distributors, there are cons. 

“It’s quite a lot to feed 3,000 people three times a day, so you need to have a pretty good company that’s got the experience and can do that and has the logistics and can do the sourcing and all that. That’s a pro,” Lengnick said. “The cons are you are forcing students to engage in the industrial food system. There’s all kinds of harms associated with that and students don’t have a choice.”

Lengnick said university administrators and students may compromise by working with corporate food distributors rather than against them. Warren Wilson now uses a combination of food from local sources and a large corporate vendor, Sodexo.

“Sodexo Food Corporation made special policies just for us and worked with us to refine them and make things workable from Sodexo’s side but also giving us the kind of food that we wanted,” Lengnick said. “We basically helped Sodexo figure out how to meet this growing demand for sustainable local food.” 

With implementations such as the Real Food Challenge, meeting goals of providing large amounts of local food does not need to be a sudden change. Hutchens noted the switch to more locally sourced food can be slow and focus on one product at a time.

“A lot of the change can happen very slowly and incrementally over time,” Hutchens said. “I think that it’s something that can be dramatized, like, ‘Oh no, all of a sudden next year, you’re going to be hit with this dramatic tuition increase,’ which is absolutely not the case.”

With so many schools relying on corporations, it seems the marriage will not be ending anytime soon. However, as awareness among students continues to grow, big changes still may be in the future. 

“We’re less comfortable with the idea of corporations and their control. I feel like we’re less bought in to the idea of capitalism being the best, brightest, only option,” Hutchens said. “Food is a human right. Everyone needs food to survive, and not everyone has their needs met here, but corporate interests are also pretty obvious here in the United States.”

For students like Ventrella, the urgency of divesting from corporations remains clear. 

“The propaganda is what really gets me,” Ventrella said. “They’re trying to fool us into thinking that what we’re eating is good but our stomachs are telling a different story.”

This article was co-written with Brooke Randle and Margaret Haddock. It was originally published in The Blue Banner.