Colby to reconsider dining contract with Sodexo

The College’s contract with Sodexo is set to expire at the end of 2016, but as of now, it is not yet clear what the future holds for the College’s dining services. Negotiations will take place sometime in August 2016 and a myriad of factors will determine whether Sodexo stays or goes­–including student satisfaction.
According to Vice President for Administration Doug Terp, “As best I can tell, Sodexo came to Colby in the 1960s, though the organization had a different name. (It was Seiler’s during my time as a student,)” he wrote in an email to the Echo.
Sodexo is one of the largest multinational food service companies in the world, employing over 380,000 people in more than 130 countries worldwide with revenues reaching over $16 Billion for fiscal year 2011.
As with most multinational corporations, Sodexo has been subject to much controversy, and the company has a large group of opponents. Much of the debate involves workers’ rights and low wages, including reports of Sodexo finding loopholes in the Affordable Care Act signed in 2010, which gave several health care benefits to full-time employees.
According to the reports, Sodexo changed employees’ part-time or full-time statuses when they considered hours worked annually rather than quarterly. As a result, many workers were downgraded to part-time status, which removed some of their full-time benefits. As many as 10,000 of the 125,000 Sodexo employees in the U.S. fell victim to this change in policy and had their benefits revoked.
In 2010, Sodexo employees at St. Luke’s and Good Shepard hospitals in Allentown, Penn. went on strike against wage theft, claiming Sodexo required them to “work without pay to reach [their] unrealistic service goals.”
At Colby, many of the Sodexo employees (who wish to remain anonymous) in the dining halls claim to work two jobs in order to support their families. Such reports have caused discomfort among students on the Colby campus, and protest groups have been formed in the past.
Colby has yet to announce whether or not they will renew their contract with Sodexo, but the College has already begun efforts to analyze what students want to see in dining halls.
“We’ve been conducting student satisfaction surveys for quite some time, the overseers review the dining program on a regular schedule (as they do for many other departments and programs), and we have a student advisory group that works with the dining services management team to bring student ideas, issues, and questions to our attention. We use that feedback to make adjustments in our dining program,” Terp said.
The students’ requests have already been met with great response, as the College has started serving Starbucks Coffee in the Joseph Family Spa, and the dining halls often have hosted theme nights, like the recent French-themed dinner in Foss Dining Hall, wherein Sodexo served bread, cheese, and French pastries.
But if Colby were to discontinue its partnership with Sodexo, what would that mean for the dining services? One major aspect is that spaces on campus could start serving food without needing Sodexo’s approval. Mary Low Coffehouse, which used to be student-run and serve coffee, would likely reopen, and other places on campus would also begin serving different food made through outside companies or Colby-hired chefs.
Terp also mentioned that Colby is already pretty self-sufficient in terms of dining. “The College engages [with] Sodexo to manage the dining program based on our direction; so, for examples, we determine the number of dining halls, the hours of operation, the format , and the board plan elements. In the end, Colby is paying [the] bills. We clearly work closely with Sodexo— their corporate/regional office resources as well as the managers who live and work here— to assess our programs, industry trends, and future plans. They bring ideas to us and we can bring them to Sodexo; we explore what options we may have; and then Colby makes the key decisions.”
At other NESCAC schools, including Bates, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Amherst, Connecticut College, Tufts, Trinity and Williams, the Colleges operate their own dining services, in which they purchase their own supplies and draft their own contracts for employees. As such, they have more flexible meal plans for students as they can choose to opt out of it all together, or only pay for two meals a day.
Prior to contracting with Sodexo, the dining services at Colby were self-operating and many of the senior students report that the quality of the food dropped significantly after the switch to Sodexo.
Another alternative would be to employ a different catering company. Hamilton and Wesleyan are not self-operating, but rather, their dining services come from the American company “Bon Apetit,” a rival of Sodexo. The company has been praised for its high standards of food and Princeton Review ranked them as “Number 1 in college dining services” for several years. Their achievements in sustainability are also unmatched by competitors.
Until contract negotiations begin between Colby and Sodexo in 2016, it is too early to determine what the future holds for the next era in Colby dining service. Many students are worried about what will happen to dining services staff members; however, most are employees of Colby, not Sodexo, so their jobs will likely not be threatened if the shift does occur.

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