Food Tank: Opinion | New Campaign Launches to Reform Unjust Business Practices of Foodservice Giants

Sept. 4, 2018

We’ve all heard the saying, “the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.” The way to the heart of some of society’s most urgent problems, such as environmental destruction, racism, and income inequality, is also through food.

From farm to fork, our food system has a significant impact on the livelihoods of people and places around the world. When immigrants are abused in the fields, when Black farmers are systematically shut out of their local markets, when people go hungry or have no choice but to eat unhealthy foods, and when animals suffer and the environment is devastated for future generations, it is an inexcusable moral failing.

Righting these injustices in our food system has proven difficult, in part because control over our food has been consolidated into the hands of a few powerful corporations that prioritize profits over the wellbeing of farmers, fishers, ranchers, workers, eaters, and the environment. For example, one out of every five pounds of chicken, beef, and pork we eat in the U.S. comes from Tyson Foods. One dairy cooperative—Dairy Farmers of America—controls about one-third of the national milk supply. Four companies—Archer–Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus—control close to 90 percent of the global grain trade. These powerful corporations use their unprecedented buying power and political influence to squeeze farmers and food chain workers, wreaking havoc on our health and the environment in the process. Just as consolidated power in the banking industry primed us for an economic crisis, consolidation in the food sector is a recipe for disaster for farmers, producers, workers and all of us who eat.

One sector in which this toxic consolidation is especially evident is in the foodservice management industry. The country’s three largest foodservice management corporations—Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group—serve billions of meals each year at universities, K–12 schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, and company cafeterias. The North American foodservice market reaches over US$50 billion annually, and these three corporations alone account for about three-quarters of that revenue. Their immense purchasing power means that they can shape the way our food, fisheries, and agriculture systems function. Currently, the majority of this spending ends up in the pockets of corporations like Tyson and Cargill that exploit workers and food producers, rely on excessive pesticides and fertilizers that devastate the environment, and manufacture unhealthy food.

How does this happen? Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass group often have exclusive contracts with “Big Food” corporations that systematically lock out smaller, more sustainable producers, fair trade companies, and local farmers, ranchers, and fishers—especially those who have been disenfranchised. The details of the relationships between foodservice companies and “Big Food” are secret not only to the people who end up eating the food, but are often also hidden from institutions serving the food, like universities.

Take, for example, Mike Callicrate, an independent cattle producer in Colorado who has been trying to sell his beef to a nearby college that outsources the operation of its dining hall to one of the foodservice management corporations. While the local food movement is growing nationally, Callicrate has seen his sales to the college drop dramatically in recent years. And he has no way of knowing whether that’s because the foodservice corporation is choosing instead to purchase meat from a multinational company that’s offering rebates to the foodservice corporation. The rebates aren’t only opaque to Callicrate; the nature of the deals between their foodservice provider and the “Big Food” corporations are secret even to the college.

This business model must change. That’s what a newly formed coalition—the Community Coalition for Real Meals—is seeking to accomplish. A grassroots, intergenerational alliance of nine organizations representing farmers, fishers, ranchers, environmental activists, and college students, the Coalition has launched a new campaign urging Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group to reorient their business model away from “Big Food” and toward “Real Food”—food that supports producers, equity, and the environment.

This coalition, alongside 45 public health, social justice, and environmental organizations, are imploring Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo to leverage their purchasing power to become a force for good within the food system. To side with producers, their customers, and the planet.

In order to realize these goals, the Community Coalition for Real Meals is calling on the three foodservice companies to:

  • buy at least 25 percent of their food from sources that are ecologically sustainable, fair, local and community-based, and humane;
  • reduce their carbon emissions and factory-farmed animal product purchases by 25 percent; and
  • increase racial justice and equity in their supply chains by increasing purchasing from and investing in infrastructure to support disenfranchised producers.

These changes are not only demanded by our collective conscience; they are demanded by these companies’ customers.

This is especially true of students who depend on the food that their colleges and universities contract from Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo. Students have traditionally been on the front lines of social justice movements, so it’s no surprise that students want their values baked into the food on their campuses. For example, this past weekend, university students, food producers, and food justice activists from across the country marched together from Western Washington University to the Whatcom County Jail to expose the harmful practices of their mutual foodservice provider, Aramark (which has a history of atrocious practices in prisons).

The students who marched understand that, from the Western Washington University dining hall to the county jail, the food we eat ties us as a society. And when Aramark profits from the incarceration of inmates while “Big Food” exploits farmers, animals and the planet, we all suffer. Through food, we are all connected. But we have a choice. Instead of food connecting us through cycles of exploitation and mutual destruction, we can come together and demand a food system that connects us through shared wealth, a healthier planet, well-nourished people and a strong democracy. A food system that nourishes everyone along the supply chain. A food system that prioritizes people over corporate profits. Starting with foodservice at college campuses, this is a change within reach.

To join the Coalition for Real Meals in calling for just and sustainable food on college campuses from Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group, sign the petition here.

Photo courtesy of Angela Huffman, Director of Communications and Research.