Sodexo: History & Concerns

By Olivia Rowland ’21

Copy Editor & Staff Writer

Saga food isn’t the greatest. At least, that’s what everyone says in continual complaints about dining on campus. But what about Sodexo — the company that runs Dining Services and Buildings and Grounds? 

Although I won’t argue that complaints about food aren’t warranted, there are many reasons that students should be more concerned about the company providing their food than the food itself.

Sodexo has been providing the Colleges with food service since 1986 and running Buildings and Grounds since 1988. It was called the Marriott Corp. until 1998, when Sodexo, then called Sodexho, merged with Marriott. 

Before Marriott, the Colleges’ dining services were provided by the Saga Corp., a food service company that was created on campus in 1948 by three Hobart students, including William Scandling ’49. Students and staff who had experienced dining under both Saga and Marriott noted a significant difference in their work environments and the quality of service that was provided. The Saga Corp. gave the dining hall a warm, family-like feel and made workers happy to go to work. Marriott, on the other hand, felt more like an institution, which depressed employee morale.

From the start of Marriott’s service on campus, many students were unhappy with the cost of meal plans, the quality and source of food, the company’s environmental impact, how it treated its workers, the lack of good vegetarian/vegan and kosher options, and the company’s food monopoly on campus. 

A lot has changed since the ’80s, but apparently not much has changed with Dining Services, since all of these problems are still relevant on campus today. Many of them stem from broader ethical concerns about Sodexo as a company.

First is Sodexo’s involvement in the private prison industry. This was briefly something of a hot topic on campus when Angela Davis came to speak in October, but few people know the details about Sodexo and prisons.

Sodexo used to invest in private prisons in the United States, notably through the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic), but sold its stock in 2001 following widespread college protests. 

Even though Sodexo is no longer involved in the U.S. private prison industry, it is heavily invested in private prisons internationally. As of 2016, Sodexo managed 42 prisons in the Netherlands, 34 in France, five in the UK, two in Spain, and one in Belgium. It is also involved in the private prison industry in Australia and Chile.

There have been notable controversies around prisons managed by Sodexo. In 2013, a female prisoner in one of Sodexo’s UK prisons sued the company for denying her proper healthcare following a miscarriage. Commentators in France and the UK have also questioned the safety and organization of prisons operated by Sodexo.

This is a serious issue that should concern everyone in the HWS community. The fact that Sodexo makes part of its profit, no matter how small, from imprisoning other human beings is unacceptable. Private prisons in general are less secure than government-run prisons are and they pay their employees less. Since they earn more money when more people are imprisoned, many companies involved in running private prisons lobby for policies that will increase incarceration rates and times, which means that they are a contributing factor to our country’s prison problem. 

Sodexo has also been frequently accused of underpaying and mistreating its employees and denying them the right to unionize. In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report claimed that Sodexo had “launched aggressive campaigns against some of its U.S. employees’ efforts to form unions and bargain collectively.” This prompted five colleges and universities to get rid of their contracts with Sodexo.

Also in 2011, a TransAfrica report gave voice to workers who accused Sodexo of “paying sub-par wages, denying employees breaks, and withholding overtime pay.” One employee who had been with Sodexo for 40 years was only earning $7.42 per hour.

These specific examples represent a pattern in Sodexo’s treatment of workers across the country. The New York Times has noted that the wages Sodexo pays its workers are “so low that some workers are required to turn to government assistance, including anti-hunger programs.” The same 2010 article revealed that less than a fifth of Sodexo employees were union members and that many more wanted to join but felt too scared to do so. 

Sodexo has also repeatedly been accused of discrimination, despite claims on its website that “diversity and inclusion [are] the cornerstone of our culture” and its first-place ranking among 449 companies for diversity in 2010, according to DiversityInc. 

After many of the company’s African American employees claimed to be “routinely barred from promotions and segregated in their company” in a 2005 lawsuit, Sodexo paid $80 million to settle. According to the Service Employees International Union, similar lawsuits were still being filed against Sodexo in 2010.

Although food isn’t the focus of this piece, it’s worth mentioning that Sodexo has also been criticized for the quality of its food and its food safety procedures. In 2012, Sodexo’s frozen strawberries were found to be the cause of a serious outbreak of food poisoning in Germany that affected more than 11,000 children. In 2013, facilities run by Sodexo in England found horse DNA in their beef. 

More recently, inspections of Sodexo-run dining halls at Marquette University (2013), RPI (2014), Drexel University (2015), Binghamton University (2016), Franklin College (2017), and Pittsburgh University (2018) uncovered serious food safety violations. 

Sodexo has responded to all of these incidents by emphasizing its commitment to food safety and the fact that it corrects violations before re-inspection. This pattern of food safety violations, however, is cause for concern, as it puts both Sodexo employees and customers at risk.

I am in no way claiming that any of these things are happening at HWS, nor do I intend to disparage anyone who works for Sodexo. I did reach out to Dave McCandless, general manager of Sodexo on campus. He said he would “answer what I can” but then never responded to my questions. This article intends to call attention to the many indicators that Sodexo is an unethical company that we should not support.

The real problem is that students, except the few who are able to live off campus or in a theme house with a co-op, are forced to give money to Sodexo if they want to attend HWS. This means that these ethical concerns should be of significant interest to every student who has a meal plan (which is most of us). 

So, what do we do? Students need to start caring about where their money is going. Many students at other colleges and universities have protested Sodexo’s service at their schools, and some have succeeded in getting their schools to drop their contracts. There’s no reason why we can’t — and shouldn’t — follow their lead. 

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