Rethinking the “Tragedy of the Commons”: Maybe Big Bad Aramark Ain’t So Bad
By Olivia Gerber ‘15 and Bruna Lobato ‘15
In 1932, Commons was the center of all college operations. The building faced the colonial houses and was the core of campus. Later, the construction of the Visual and Performing Arts building (VAPA) to the northeast of Commons not only physically decentralized the campus, but also made Commons somewhat obsolete. The third floor that consisted of performance studios was sealed, and it hasn’t been used ever since.
Over time, it became clear that the dining hall on the second floor also needed renovations. After all, this is the largest communal space on campus. That recognition, paired with the desire to increase the local food offerings, led David Rees, the College’s Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration, and Laura Krause, the College CFO, to search for a food service provider that would fit our developing needs and culture. Aramark was the one that agreed to do it the way it was requested, Bennington style. While in most colleges, food service companies make sure to put their logos all over their institutional-looking cafeterias, Aramark has let us keep the dining hall as close to our preferences as possible, and recognize it as an important element of our Bennington community. They even have kept as many of the original dining hall employees as possible.
When students returned from summer break this September, they noticed all the changes ranging from newly acquired panini presses and sunlight coming through previously blocked windows to healthier food options that include hormone-free chicken, wraps, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The environment is much cleaner, perhaps verging on sterile-looking. Still, for returning students things looked misplaced, and it is not so surprising that there were many complaints. “Where are the plates?”, “why there is only one line for hot food?”, and “why does my food come from a company that also provides dining to correctional institutions across North America?” seemed to be the most common concerns.
But perhaps students jumped too quickly on the idea that having a multinational food supplier was bad. Krause pointed out that in this case, Aramark’s prominence is to our advantage. Since they have large purchasing power, they have the ability to buy local produce at a much lower cost. And this saves the school money that can be included in the College’s payment plan with Aramark for their food services and the Commons renovation for which they paid and does not involve loans of any sort.
The College has a ten-year long contract with the company, which may be of concern for the binding commitment it presents. However, Krause explained that it is included in their agreement that this is only valid while Aramark holds their end of the bargain by offering high-quality food, a clean environment, commitment to regional food production, and responsiveness to students’ requests through the renowned napkin notes.
Environmental Studies SEPC (Student Education Policy Committee) representative and member of the BSFP (Bennington Sustainable Food Project) Dane Whitman ‘16 is a student liaison for dining services, and remarked that students can also be active in terms of the changes they want to see in the dining hall. Both the College administration and the dining hall management are open to suggestions and even hold open meetings regularly. “First, we are looking to get gluten free things, and make sure they are labeled. We are looking at little things like more flow to the line -- responding to what people like. The big goal, the long-term goal, is local food. Everybody wants local food,” Whitman said.
Krause admitted that the dining hall service is indeed not perfect, and that it might never be. “We want to see consistency with the food quality, and a large variety of options, but of course that is still a work in progress and it takes time to make it the way we want it, especially after any big change like this.” she said. She also expressed that they are more than happy to receive suggestions from students. They want to make sure that students have all the information they need, and that they know they can always ask questions. According to the administration, the new dining hall management is committed to transparency.
Contrary to rumors, there is no no-compete clause in their contract, and, in fact, they have even been buying from our very own Purple Carrot Farm in small quantities and will begin supplementing orders with purchases from Bennington’s Youth Agriculture Project where recent graduate Bryan Markhart ‘13 now works. Additionally, Aramark’s presence will have no effect on the creation of a student co-op.
All their produce is ordered by a small, local distributor, called Black River. Whitman added, “They are all farms we know and so there is that transparency. All the farms we buy from are listed on the chalkboard (in the dining hall) and I think people are very happy about that. I think transparency is what we wanted and it is certainly what we are getting. If there’s one thing I want to say is that there are no obstacles except our determination -- students specifically. We can’t just expect the administration to be like, ‘okay we’re totally sustainable now’ -- they are as busy as, if not busier, than we are. We all need to take it upon ourselves.”
Of course, due to Aramark’s size, their operations require more oversight than a small company might instead. But, like everything else at Bennington, that means the responsibility lies with us.