By Megan Cole
February 1, 2016
Caption : Aramark Corporation has fed prisoners maggots, dog food, and literal garbage while profiting off of low food quality. Now, student activists are protesting the same company's food service contracts with dozens of universities nationwide.     

Food and facility management company Aramark Corporation has been found responsible over the past decade for egregious food safety violations in some of the over 600 prisons they are contracted to serve. Just a few of the violations include serving inmates meals laced with maggots, dog food, worms, rat-bitten scraps, and garbage. Dozens of American universities, however, are still under contract with Aramark, though waves of student protests in recent years concerning campus food quality and employee welfare have threatened Aramark’s share of the higher education food service market.

Aramark’s history of poor food safety conditions in prisons spans the last decade, on a national scale. In 2008, over 270 prisoners in Florida and 50 in Colorado contracted severe food poisoning after eating Aramark chili prepared in purportedly unclean, maggot-infested kitchens. In 2012, inmates in New Jersey and Santa Barbara initiated independent hunger strikes in response to substandard Aramark food quality. In 2013, an investigation of a different New Jersey prison contracted by Aramark revealed that inmates were chronically underfed, and served stale and filthy food, resulting in frequent bouts of nausea and diarrhea.

Last year, Progress Michigan reported that fly larvae and maggots were found near food serving lines at Saginaw Correctional Facility, contracted by Aramark. More than 150 inmates were subsequently quarantined for flu symptoms.

In 2014, the state of Michigan fined Aramark $200,000 for contractual violations including underfeeding prisoners and overcharging state governments–including up to $5 million–for food services provided. Ohio also levied fines on Aramark, $272,300 worth, for similar violations.

Despite food safety concerns and breaches of contract, many state prisons continue to contract Aramark based on profit margins. As of 2013, Michigan state officials estimated the state saved $12 to $16 million by privatizing food service. Michigan finally terminated their $145 million contract with Aramark in mid-2015, only to transfer to a different private food supplier, Trinity Services Group.

In addition to maintaining contracts with prison clients, Aramark also contracts food services to dozens of universities across America, including University of California, Irvine, University of Virginia, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Columbia University, and the University of North Carolina. However, Millennials upset with Aramark’s abuses within the prison industry as well as their poor treatment of student employees at contracted universities have spurred a wave of student-led protests urging university administrations to cancel contracts with the corporation.

A 2008 article run in the Minnesota Daily, the student publication of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, pressures the school’s administration to reconsider their contract with Aramark on the basis of their poor treatment of student staff.

“In 2007, University Dining Services experienced a turnover of 469 employees—more than half of the students and teamsters that account for UDS’ staff,” the article reads. It also notes that “this is more than three times the amount of employee terminations in 1998, the first year Aramark Corp. partnered [with the University].” The article attributes the turnover rate to Aramark directors at the University skimming wages from student employees and creating a “hostile” work environment.

An article published last year in University of Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, similarly urges the cancellation of Aramark’s contract with the university.

“Aramark has not treated its workers well in the past,” the Cavalier’s managing board wrote.  “It has refused to bargain with unions, withheld union dues, avoided paying unemployment insurance taxes and allegedly pocketed workers’ tips and service charges.”

At the University of California, Irvine, the last campus in the University of California system to subcontract food services, all food service employees on campus are paid California minimum wage of $9/hour and are prohibited from receiving tips or unionizing, according to Aramark policy.

UC Irvine, however, recently participated in University of California’s $25 million divestment from private prisons, and is one of many campuses cracking down on any tacit support of the prison system by universities–including contracting Aramark for food services.

When Columbia University became the first United States college to divest from private prisons last year, the student-led advocacy group, Columbia Prison Divest, noted that the university’s contract with Aramark is high on their list of priorities for further divestment, given the corporation’s history of inhumane prisoner treatment.

“We targeted the university’s investments in two private prison companies, but we hope that private prison divestment campaigns…can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice,” Columbia student organizer Dunni Oduyemi wrote in a statement.

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