Letter to the Editor, Re: Aramark

This is a letter to the Editor in response to an article published Oct 17, 2013, "Rethinking the “Tragedy of the Commons”: Maybe Big Bad Aramark Ain’t So Bad." You can read our response to this letter here

It is very worthwhile that the new Dining Services on campus has been the focus of much attention by the Bennington Free Press over the last two terms. Fair and accurate reporting, however, should be cornerstones of the Free Press. The feature article “Rethinking the Tragedy of the Commons: Maybe Big Bad Aramark Ain’t So Bad” by Olivia Gerber ’15 and Bruna Lobato ‘15 on October 17, 2013 was filled with misconstrued statements and factual errors. The shift in Dining Services to Aramark is something that touches the lives of just about everyone on campus. Many of us are concerned about the food that we eat and are becoming participatory in the transition to Aramark by voicing our concerns, needs, and perceptions about what is good quality food and how to have it on campus. The focus on local foods is one of the ways that members of the campus community are seeking good quality food. Gerber and Lobato place undue importance on the role of local food procurement in the College’s switch to Aramark, however, claiming that renovation to the Dining Commons “paired with the desire to increase local food offerings” is what led the College to seek a new food service provider. This is one small piece of the transition to Aramark that is currently under discussion. David Rees as well as Aramark leadership on campus are saying they want to build relationships with area farmers, but we are still in process to figuring out how to do it. There are many processes to understand and challenges to face before the campus community can establish a means to work more closely with its own student farm, the Purple Carrot Farm, and area farmers. The local farms list that appears on the blackboard in the Dining Commons is a list of farms that works with Black River Produce, a Vermont based food distributor that specializes in working with New England farmers (but their farmers are not exclusively regional). Currently, Mike Crane, Aramark Head Chef, cites that Black River supplies between 10 to 20% of the campus’ weekly produce; 80 - 90% comes from Sysco, a global Fortune 500 supplier of products to foodservice facilities. Both companies have local product lines as well as national and international products. It is hard to say what share of purchasing is “local,” especially given the different definitions of this term. This ratio stands in stark contrast to Gerber and Lobato’s claim that all of campus’ produce comes from Black River. One reason that foodservice companies like Aramark use established food distributors in place of sourcing directly from producers is because they carry liability insurance in case their food makes someone sick. More and more food service, retail, and wholesale distributors are also requiring that farmers’ products are certified to meet the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices, a set of practices focused on food safety at the farm level. Insurance and GAP standard certification can be two barriers to working directly with small farmers who do not have enough capital to invest in these levels of protection.  The manager of Aramark on campus, John Tompkins, has told us that they require all food providers to have at least $2 million in liability insurance; we are still unsure of the role that GAP standard certification will play in food procurement both now and in the future. The pending federal Food Safety Modernization Act will require regulation of food safety protocols on farms is to become more stringent which is intended to provide more protection for foodservice companies, and ultimately consumers, but will place a disproportionally heavy burden of safe food on small vegetable farmers. Finally Gerber and Lobato state that since “they [Aramark] have large purchasing power, they have the ability to buy local produce at a much lower cost.” This power may be good for Aramark, but using it to drive down cost stands contrary to the values and economics of purchasing from small farmers who do not have the efficiencies of scale to compete with farmers who supply Sysco, and even Black River. For example, our student farmers on campus asked Dining Services for the going wholesale rate of $0.64/lb for their organic butternut squash, the lowest wholesale price listed by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association this time last year. Aramark offered them $0.55/lb, the lowest price for butternut squash (not organic) from their current suppliers. Is the butternut squash grown by our students on our campus a relative product to Sysco or Black River supplied squash, and should it be valued the same? These are some of questions that we need to grapple with, and find common ground on, before we can move forward with a local purchasing program that works.


 

Valerie Imbruce, Faculty Member

Brendan Tang ‘16

Carl Johanson ‘13

Joseph Makuch ‘16

Olivia Gerber ‘15

Dane Whitman ‘15

Cleo Zars ‘17

Katherine Parker ‘17

Samuel Swann ‘16

Lizzy Weal ‘17

James Besse ‘17

Kiley Dalrymple ‘16

Emma Lanning ‘16

Brendon Walter ‘16

Christopher Larson ‘16

Benjamin Ehlers ‘17

Annabel Willis ‘17

Hannah Berman ‘17