Eating Under Sodexo’s Shadow
Featured / September 14, 2017
KPU’s “Hangry Students” speak out about food availability on-campus
Alyssa Laube, Coordinating Editor
Sodexo, the corporate giant that holds ownership over the cafeteria and the Tim Hortons on KPU’s Surrey campus, has again fallen under fire for failing to satisfy some of the university’s students and faculty.
An advocacy group founded by five youths in the criminology program—and overseen by their instructor, Jeffrey Shantz—is now running a “Hangry Students” campaign to urge KPU to stop putting all its eggs in Sodexo’s basket and shift its focus towards student-oriented food security on campus.
Sodexo has provided services to a wide array of clients ranging from universities to prisons, and has been the subject of controversy for the better part of a decade.
Although the company itself is French, it operates all over the world. Sodexo has been boycotted several times in the United States and protested nearly everywhere else they have served, almost always on university campuses, and always for the same reasons—unfair pay and labour practices for their workers, investment in the prison and armed forces industries, poor food quality and, occasionally, the odd customer abuse accusation or string of horse DNA discovered in their beef products.
Seven years ago, Sodexo staff made local headlines by chasing KPU criminology student Emery Warner off campus for handing out pamphlets condemning the company’s ethics and operations. The ordeal attracted media attention all over the city, but other than that, little came of the dispute.
“He was handing it out on campus and the manager of Sodexo got wind of it and came with security and tried to shut him down, tried to stop him from disseminating this information on-campus,” says Shantz, who was also Warner’s instructor at the time. “They asked him for ID. They wanted to take his fliers away. They ended up pushing him to the edge of campus where, being a clear thinker, the first thing he did when he stepped on the sidewalk was call The Vancouver Sun.”
Shantz says that he still sees student interest in the company brought up consistently in his classes, and has continued to encourage his students to look into issues regarding Sodexo’s presence on campus as part of their criminology class curriculum.
Sodexo on Campus
A year before Warner’s altercation with Sodexo, KPU was looking to replace its then food service provider, Chartwells, and began a bidding process to bring in a contractor “with proven experience, capability and capacity to develop and provide a comprehensive food service program for a multi-campus post secondary institution.” Although the call-out document listed one of the contractor’s requirements as being able to “effectively and efficiently provide an affordable, quality and appropriate menu and service for Kwantlen’s cafeterias and catering needs,” and makes no mention of student-run or local businesses being either banned or encouraged from applying, Shantz says that the student body and faculty were not alerted of the open bid.
“There was concern about a lack of transparency in the bid process,” he says. “There was a real concern that this decision was made unilaterally, without consultation on certain parts of the community … The KSA and the Grassroots were never given the opportunity to put in a bid.”
The application form for interested contractors included a list of references, answers to questions about company history and experience, and information about KPU’s campus customer base and facilities.
Sodexo won the bid and has been the primary food service provider for KPU’s Surrey campus ever since. Now a group of passionate students are standing up to the company to demand better standards for the hungry on campus.
Hangry Students Speak Out
Alyssa Carpenter, Rhoda Fong, Satnam Gill, Michael Pincott, and Ximena Poblete – all students of Shantz – together make up KPU’s “Hangry Students.” Their demands, although plenty, can reasonably be summarized as getting student access to healthy and affordable food around the clock.
“We’re not ignorant. We’re not angry that [Sodexo is] here. We just want them to work with us,” says Gill. “If they’re willing to listen, we can maybe work with them on behalf of all the students about these problems: keep their doors open, keep the cafeteria open during summer semester, remodel the menu so there are healthier options, and find cheaper options.”
“We’re expected to be here all day if we have a full course load, and there aren’t that many options that we really have,” says Fong. “The cafeteria is very expensive. We have Tim Hortons but there are high school students coming in, and during breaks everyone’s going at the same time so you have to wait—but breaks are only 10 minutes, so you’re either interrupting class because the line’s made you late or you’re stuck at your desk and you’re hungry.”
Of the three food service providers open to students on the KPU Surrey campus, two are owned by Sodexo. The student-run Grassroots Cafe offers healthier options, but charges much higher prices than either the cafeteria or Tim Hortons, which often closes before the sun goes down. Those attending classes anytime after 5:00 p.m. are frequently left either to go hungry or eat from vending machines until their instructors excuse them.
“Students who are starving tend to be very distracted,” says Fong. “Being food-deprived for long periods of time does affect your cognitive development, and there are plenty of studies on that. Students that want something really cheap or really fast don’t have time to wait in a 20 minute line up or don’t have the money to buy something really expensive.”
The lack of culinary variety is particularly problematic for anyone on campus who has dietary restrictions. For community members eating vegan, vegetarian, halal, and so on, grabbing a bite on campus on a budget or after dinnertime can be nearly impossible.
Because the contract between Sodexo and KPU has not been made public, whether or not the cafeteria must remain open during particular hours is uncertain. The Hangry Students group suggests that, if is unable to stay open longer every day, the university should consider running external programs for local businesses, food trucks, and KPU students—such as those from the KPU farm school—to sell and give away their products. This would not only boost community involvement and businesses, but also provide more variety to KPU students who don’t have the time, money, or ability to run across the street to get acceptable food between classes.
“There are a lot of classes that build models about creating and running your own business, but this would also allow entrepreneurs to test out the waters, like, ‘How does this work with students?’” says Gill. “It would also help students to get food that is healthy, because the students have thought out what would sell, what’s healthy, and all these benefits.”
Personally, she and Fong would like to see a company other than Sodexo “taking that space and making it feel like it’s more for students,” as compared to the impersonal service they feel they receive in the cafeteria.
“It almost feels like I’m in a hospital—the quality of food, and the employees there. I’m not saying they’re bad people, but they’re so phased out. It’s like, ‘Okay, here’s your food, go.’ They treat us as if we’re just profit and someone to take money from,” says Gill.
KPU’s Cold Beverage Agreement
Though unrelated to Sodexo, another issue that concerns the Hangry Students is the lack of water fountains on KPU campuses. Shantz says that building plans he and other faculty members were sent included spaces for water fountains, but they were never actually constructed. Instead, there are vending machines selling Coca Cola products around nearly every corner—a fact that Shantz, Fong, and Gill suggest may be a strategic symptom of the university’s exclusivity agreement with the franchise.
Despite the lack of KPU-installed water fountains, the Kwantlen Student Association has set up water bottle refilling stations on-campus to keep the community hydrated and environmentally-friendly.
Fong notes that refilling reusable water bottles is “better for the environment and it’s healthier for students, instead of being forced to buy a vitamin water, which is actually still pretty unhealthy, or Coke or iced tea.” She suggests that the university install more fountains in its buildings, seek out a more student-friendly provider, and negotiate a new contract with Coca Cola as soon as possible.
The cold beverage agreement that KPU and Coca Cola are currently under states that its purpose is “to provide product, equipment, commissions, and sponsorship with Coca-Cola and Pepsi in return for a 5 year limited exclusive agreement with extension options for the Cloverdale, Langley, Richmond, and Surrey campuses.”
Evidently, Coca-Cola was chosen as the provider on June 10, 2010.
“The concern coming from some students and staff was that this was kind of a ‘gimme’ for Coca Cola [and Pepsi],” says Shantz. “If there are no water fountains, people have to buy bottled water.”
The bid for a new food contractor on KPU campuses will open at the beginning of 2020, which Gill sees as “an opportunity for businesses around us to build a better relationship with each other and the school.”
“It would create a more tight-knit community as well, to know we can provide for ourselves and provide our own resources,” she says.
When asked to comment on the opening bid and direction that the university plans to go in, KPU President Alan Davis replied that, although he is “open to the conversation” around Sodexo and whatever may replace it once the bidding process begins again, he wasn’t certain of “where [KPU was] at in respect to the bid for space” at this time.
“The process is the process. Things are put out to bid,” says Davis. ”We are aware of student concerns in respect to food services generally. It’s been something that I’ve talked about with a number of different people over the years and if it’s coming up on the list of things that are more important now then so be it. Can we do better? Probably. Let’s see if we can find a way to do better.”
Sodexo declined to be interviewed, but the company’s General Manager of Food Services Gurpreet Sanghera wrote in an email on Aug. 10 that the company “will be running some great programs in [the] new semester like Meatless Mondays, Salad Bar Wednesdays, only using free run eggs and locally grown produce etc.”
On Aug. 24, Fong wrote in an email that the Hangry Students were able to meet with Stefan Durston, KPU’s Director of Ancillary Services, on Aug. 22.
“Our concerns were addressed, and there’s promise of change coming soon. They are currently looking into adding new water refill stations in the main building,” she wrote. “Once we meet with Sodexo we will have a better understanding of the situation, and what changes we can see moving forward.”
Although the students have not yet heard from Sodexo, they hope to meet with a representative of the company as well as the Kwantlen Student Association in the near future.