Ditching Commercial Food Services on Campus

Two years ago, Sodexo workers at George Mason University went out on strike.  The students supported the workers, who were underpaid and forced to work in unsafe kitchen environments.  Faculty like myself swore off eating on campus.  For the entire academic year, I packed my lunch.

Last summer I attended the HERS summer program for women leaders in academia.  Among my HERS cohort was a young woman, “Meredith” who was married to her campus’s chef.  She was an associate dean on her college campus; he ran the entire campus food service.

What struck me about this situation was how well it worked.  Her husband hired several recent grads from culinary school to work under him. He managed the menues for seven different eating venues on campus, including a standard all-you-can-eat cafeteria, a salad restaurant not unlike the “Chopped” or “Tossed” chains, a deli, a pizzeria, a hamburger joint.  You get the idea.

What I liked most about this idea was the entrepreneurial opportunities it afforded local residents.  This was not a major corporation, but a small business contracted through campus.  Meredith’s husband rotated menus ensuring that the campus cuisine was always offering something new and different.  She told me that some of the lunch counters had become so well-known that community locals would come to campus for lunch.

I came back from HERS thinking this would be a solution for our campus: let recent grads with an interest in restaurant management take over our food service, buy local and bring the prices down.  I can say that no one on campus is happy with our current dining options.  Why not give a local entrepreneurial option a chance?

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education ran this article that makes a similar argument, quoted in part here:

American colleges, especially undergraduate liberal-arts institutions that profess a deep commitment to sustainability, environmentalism, and social justice—which, of course, they all do—cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices of corporate agribusiness and its on-campus partners, college food services.

Instead, colleges can and should be playing a significant part in reshaping American agriculture, first by figuring out the exciting, complex, and potentially daunting process of developing an independent, college-operated food service, reliant upon locally and regionally sourced food, and firing their corporate food services. And second by building new, baccalaureate-level programs in agriculture.

Those two steps will allow colleges to get themselves out of an ethical pickle that’s been sitting in brine for a decade or more. In the same way that many colleges crow about their LEED-certified buildings, their low carbon footprints, the importance of their communities, and their commitments to everything green, sustainable, and just, they talk about their food. They show beautiful pictures of salads, fruits, and plated meals on their Web sites. They show gardens at harvest and chefs in white hats. The impression is that all this good stuff is somehow directly reflective of the institution itself; that it is part of the ethos and practice of the place.

The article goes on to argue building a food service curriculum around agriculture. I would argue for a connection to nutrition and business programs (George Mason has no agriculture school).  Our university prides itself on being innovative and cutting edge.  Moving away from commercial food services would be a great way to demonstrate innovation.

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One thought on “Ditching Commercial Food Services on Campus

  1. You are correct; GMU does not have an ag school. However, four hours from Fairfax in southwest Virginia there is an outstanding state university with one. I refer, of course, to the Virginia Polytechnic Institue and State University in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech also has a significant presence in Northern Virginia.

    My contact with the folks at the Ag School was limited. Back in the day, I was walking once with a cute girl through a pasture and a bull chased us out. She was a very cute girl, for sure.

    Just because GMU does not have an ag school should not preclude the possibility of collaboration with the Hokies in Blacksburg. Why not think about it?

    Here are is a link to the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences: http://www.cals.vt.edu/.

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