When I first arrived on campus at HWS, I was a little disappointed with the food options on campus. I come from a household that really focuses on communal eating: meals are meant to be shared, savored, and prepared in the home. I was unfamiliar with this centralized hub of food activity on campus. So, I did what any overly nosey person would do: I took a job with Sodexo.
When I first found myself working in Sodexo kitchens I realized something very quickly. These are not kitchens: they are food factories. There are all the elements of a kitchen: stove, oven, knives, tables, and even cooks, but they will never be kitchens. The primary goal of these factories is production, not product. They are judged by the number of dishes they produce over the inventory they used. The individual dish, in itself, is an illusion. A factory doesn’t make anything, it just houses the machines inside.
And for Sodexo workers, they find themselves caught in the middle, human components in a vast automaton. Many full time workers have extensive backgrounds in cuisine and catering, yet they still must endure the unblunted criticism of the full student body. They feel caught between the disappointed faces of the students they serve, and the hardlined rules outlined in red tape within their recipe books. Even if they could afford to lavish on the dish by the time it reached them, it wouldn’t amount to much. The average worker only sees an ingredient, dish, or item, at only one stage within its lifespan. The material I prep on a Wednesday shift could be in the food by the next day, or it could be in the fridge by the end of the week. The workers who handle hot food draw the ingredients from the fridge, not knowing who prepared them or how. They only know when, for what dish, and what amount (always to be corroborated with the recipe book).
I spoke with another student worker at great length on the issues we had with our respective jobs. As student workers, we have an intersectional perspective on the issues. Our place among the student population makes us well aware of the complaints and criticisms that Sodexo establishments receive. It also gives us the perspective of what structures exist that make it so.
The worker I spoke with, Casey Cady, has been working at the Cellar Pub the past three years. While we covered many subjects, the main issue that Casey kept coming back to was the lack of respect both inside and outside the system.
“We have managers yelling at full time employees over how they wash the produce. The students see them treating us this way, and they think it’s ok.”
Casey also told me about what the food system used to look like, specifically at the Pub.
“It used to be less Sodexo based, and more about what the cooks did. There’s not a lot of leeway for employees to make food that they want to and are capable of making.”
This is true. Very often a cook or worker will have relevant culinary knowledge that simply does not fit within the framework of the food factory. The factory approach, while undoubtedly the most efficient of all the possible solutions, leaves the least room for humans in the system. And when there is no room left in the system, people get forced out.
Casey confirmed as much to me. “It’s clearly taking a toll on the full time employees. Full time employees have gone to HR, and it’s public knowledge,” commenting on the stress that workers found themselves under from various fronts.
I’ve heard colleagues of mine griping about the food, talking about how “they deserve our money’s worth.” The following insults are usually dish based, and aimed at whichever employee was unfortunate enough to serve the disgruntled student. I am not alone in hearing these things. All of Sodexo staff can hear dissatisfied muttering as well as the rest of us. Just because we work in kitchens doesn’t mean we can’t tell when someone is blatantly bad mouthing us.
But I agree, you should get your money’s worth. A service is promised, payment is rendered, and the rest should be history. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being cheated what is owed to you. Just consider who exactly owes it to you. Is it the elderly gentleman serving you lasagna? Is it the student worker bussing tables next to you? Is it the mother behind the till ringing you up? All of us have families, either to provide for or to make proud. I can take pride in my work and still be frustrated with the results.
Conflict between managers and workers, students and employees, all of it can be summed up in a phrase I hear so often on the line: “It’s not my call.” But in a system where everyone is so inherently disconnected, who can you call for accountability?