Free Our Food

By signing any dining contract, the University continues to be complicit in mass incarceration.

By Alex Relihan

With over two million people currently in prison, the United States holds both the world’s highest incarceration rate and a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Almost one million of those prisoners are African Americans, who are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans. Instead of confronting social problems like unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness, we attempt to hide those problems by locking people in prisons. This is not merely a function of denial; we imprison this many people because it is profitable. Not only do high incarceration rates benefit private prison operators—they also translate into profits for corporations that use prison labor, build prisons, manufacture goods sold in prisons, develop surveillance technologies used to control prisoners, and provide food to prisons. The political influence of these corporations, as well as of prison guard and police unions, contributes substantially to our country’s outrageous incarceration rates. These overlapping interests of government and industry in maintaining mass incarceration are termed the “prison-industrial complex.”

One major beneficiary of the prison-industrial complex is a corporation with which UChicago students are intimately familiar: Aramark. With contracts to provide food service in some 600 prisons across North America, Aramark reaps exorbitant profits while serving insufficient, rotten, or moldy food to prisoners. The University has been signing multimillion-dollar contracts with Aramark for decades, despite the obvious conflict of interest between the University’s Board of Trustees and its president Joseph Neubauer, who was also Aramark’s CEO for 30 years.

The expiration of the current dining contract at the end of this academic year presents the University of Chicago with an opportunity to reduce its complicity in mass incarceration. Unfortunately, both of the other companies that UChicago Dining is considering for its next contract, Sodexo and Bon Appétit, are also part of the prison-industrial complex. Sodexo operates 112 prisons in Europe and five in Chile, while Bon Appétit’s parent company, Compass Group, profits from prisons through another subsidiary, Canteen Correctional Services. As long as UChicago Dining contracts with a company that profits from prisons, the money we pay for our meal plans is funding and contributing to mass incarceration.

Last quarter, the Fight for Just Food launched a campaign to challenge the University’s support of the prison-industrial complex. We are demanding that UChicago Dining refuse to sign a contract with any company that profits from prisons. Ideally, UChicago should instead self-operate its dining service, as many universities currently do—and UChicago did until 1989. Self-operation would allow student concerns about dining to be dealt with more efficiently and transparently, and would also give dining hall workers all the benefits of being University employees, such as tuition reductions for family members and access to libraries. Self-operation is a feasible endeavor; the University can follow the example of Yale, which switched to self-operation after its contract with Aramark ended in 2008.

Nonetheless, we understand that it takes time to implement and cannot be in place by the time the current contract expires. Therefore, in the meantime, we call on UChicago Dining to give 40% of the new contract to small, local businesses. For example, South Side businesses could prepare the dining halls’ specialty foods, and add more vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Over the next three years, UChicago Dining should plan to either transition to self-operating the rest of its service or contract its entire operation with small, local businesses.

On two occasions, the Fight for Just Food has met with Richard Mason, the executive director of UChicago Dining, to discuss our concerns. We feel that he has shown little to no interest in finding an ethical dining contract or in seeking and incorporating student input in the contract decision process. The primary avenue for student input into the process of choosing a contract is the Campus Dining Advisory Board (CDAB), which will work with representatives of Aramark-run, on-campus cafés, selected Resident Masters, and others to submit a recommendation on the decision. Although CDAB consists of six undergraduate students from Student Government (SG) and the Inter-House Council (IHC), it is laughable to say that a few members of SG and IHC on a committee are sufficient representation of the student body. During a January 27 “town hall” meeting held by two members of the advisory board, concerned students were only allowed to submit written questions and comments that were then screened by the event’s leaders. The blatant dismissal of student voices and pathetic attempts to create nominal avenues for student input only serve to emphasize the University’s increasing commitment to profit margins over people.

This is unacceptable. In order to make our concerns heard and demand answers to our unanswered questions, the Fight for Just Food will hold an alternative town hall meeting at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 10, on the first floor of Bartlett, right outside of UChicago Dining’s office. We aim to express solidarity with incarcerated people and pressure the administration to stop supporting corporations that profit from prisons. By organizing, we can work together to end UChicago’s complicity in mass incarceration.

Alex Relihan is a fourth-year in the College majoring in linguistics.

William Thomas is a third-year in the College majoring in math.