On Dec. 3, 2018, students at New York University (NYU) — the nations largest private university — began a 155-hour occupation of the institution’s library demanding the termination of any business relations with the dining services conglomerate Aramark. NYU’s Incarceration to Education Coalition, which advocates for prison divestment organized the protest. After negotiations, NYU has agreed to establish committees to address mass incarceration, according to a statement issued by the university
A plethora of colleges & universities across the nation — including UMass Lowell — are contracted with Aramark as a dining services provider.
What does Aramark have to do with prisons?
For nearly 40 years, Aramark has been contracted with 500 correctional facilities, according to their website. The prison industrial complex has been the center of contentious debate regarding human rights and mass incarceration. In short, Aramark profits immensely from disproportionately high prison populations; the United States has the highest prison population in the entire world.
The push for prison divestment comes at a time when the general population is becoming increasingly aware of the prison system as a for-profit business which pushes for excessive, racially and socioeconomically disproportionate incarceration. Also, the widespread failure of prisons to properly rehabilitate convicted individuals is becoming more apparent and generating a demand for more effective alternatives.
Incarcerated people have to eat, but what role does their food supplier play in their imprisonment? In 2016, Aramark, along with other corporate partners, paid the National Sheriffs Association $317,000 in “corporate partnership” dues. In 2015, Aramark funded the Corrections/Jail Innovation of the Year Award. In 2014, Aramark sponsored the American Correctional Associations general session, attended by an estimated 1,500 correctional professionals.
Between 2009 – 2016, Aramark contributed over $134,000 to state-level candidates and committees.
Recently, Aramark has come under fire from the UMass Lowell community for poor food quality and dining standards. However, are there other questions to be posed regarding Aramark’s business activity and UMass Lowell’s ethics?
One discrepancy, in particular, is the issue of sustainability and environmental responsibility.
Ruairi O’Mahony, Director of Sustainability for UMass Lowell, said, “We’ve got a number of different programs with [dining services]…the overarching goal with dining services is to make the entire operation as sustainable as possible.”
This operation includes a complex composting system which the school operates in conjunction with Mill City Grows, a Lowell-based non-profit focused on food sustainability and nutrition.
O’Mahony, who has been with the university for over five years, lists “increased sustainability literacy among students” and Massachusetts’ 2014 commercial organic waste ban as primary drivers of increased eco-friendly initiatives on campus.
Other efforts on UMass Lowell’s part include getting more local produce into dining halls, transforming compost into natural gas and tray-less dining.
As UMass Lowell strives to be the most sustainable it can be, Aramark continually contributes to environmental degradation as detailed in court documents regarding a lawsuit from Dayton, Ohio, residents claiming Aramark contaminated the ground with carcinogenic compounds.
The myriad of prison facilities Aramark supplies also strain land and pollute surrounding areas.
Despite controversy and ethics, UMass Lowell continues to work with Aramark, a relationship that reaches far beyond food. The multi-national dining services provider also manages part of the UML Inn & Conference Center, retail spaces, Tsongas Center and on-campus catering.
“I believe it was the early 1990s when we started our relationship with [Aramark],” said James Kohl, Dean of Student Affairs and Enrichment. “I was not here at the time.”
Kohl’s primary role with Aramark is [Aramark’s] affiliation with on-campus retail and dining halls.
“I think the contract [with Aramark] is up in the next ten years,” said Kohl. Extensive contract durations are not uncommon among higher education institutions and dining services.
Aramark is deeply invested financially in the campus, according to Kohl.
“[Aramark] has helped to renovate McGauvran Center, Fox Hall, retail venues on campus — there’s been a number of times when they’ve invested capital, and they expect that money to come back through revenue stream,” said Kohl.
The revenue stream Kohl speaks of is student dollars, which are being poured into a corporation cited for over 30 workplace safety and health violations since 2000 — this only includes violations successfully issued by the U.S. government on public record.
When asked about whether the university has attempted to address any of the aforementioned issues with Aramark, Kohl said, “Those have not been part of any discussion I’ve been in…”
While student bodies across the country organize against campus dining services for a variety of reasons, Kohl explained his awareness of the trend. “I’ve definitely been aware of some of those [movements], the question is – what’s the alternative?”
One alternative, which is adopted by UMass Amherst, is self-operating dining. Is self-operation feasible for UMass Lowell? “The short answer is no,” Kohl said. “it’s really expensive to do that.”
Kohl went on to explain an advisory committee set up following the food quality controversy from last year; “Today we have the second of our Student Dining Advisory Committee meetings, which we have monthly now…we also have campus-based groups that meet which focus on issues specific to that campus.”
Regarding any of Aramark’s controversial business practices beyond the campus having been addressed in any of these meetings, Kohl said, “Honestly not in any conversation I’ve been in — I’m not in every conversation, you know? If they happened, I’m not aware of it,” echoing his previous answer. “From where I sit, I spend most of my time with the local entity…in terms of their national focus, I’m not familiar.”
Then who does spend time focusing on the university’s partners?
Brian Madigan, Student Trustee, said, “UMass Lowell works hard to evaluate and assess the values and ethics of companies that are used as vendors, making sure that companies we use have similar values.”
The evaluation and assessment Madigan referred to is performed by the UMass Foundation’s Socially Responsible Investing Advisory Committee.
When asked about Aramark specifically, Madigan refused to comment.
The paradox in all of this remains rooted in UMass Lowell’s mission statement, “…preparing students to work in the real-world, solve real problems and help real people.”
The “problems” students are prepared to solve are the same “problems” caused by pouring student dollars into corporations, like Aramark, who betray UML’s mission statement continually.