Pomona College will terminate its contract with food management provider Sodexo on Jan. 18, 2011, Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson told students in a Nov. 10 e-mail. The termination ends a 10-year relationship between Sodexo and the college.
“Instead of relying on a third-party food management service, the College will move to self-operated Dining Services,” Sisson wrote in her e-mail.
The last time changes were made to dining hall management was in 2000, when the 5Cs collectively decided to remove ARAMARK, another food service provider, from all 5C dining operations, according to TSL records.
That decision resulted from complaints about health concerns in the dining halls, including a salmonella outbreak in Frary in 1999, as well as maltreatment of dining hall workers. In response, Pomona hired all dining hall staff as employees of the college and brought in Sodexo to manage its dining halls.
At the time, dining hall staff had been pushing for a vote on unionization. After the change in their employment status, workers voted against forming a union, 45-11, in Aug. 2000, according to TSL archives. Members of the Workers Support Committee at the time pointed to the change in employment status as a ploy by the college to dissuade workers from voting for a union.
When asked if the current change in dining hall management was related to Workers for Justice and their recent push for unionization, college officials said it was not.
“This is a decision we have been considering for almost two years, because we have not been satisfied with the responsiveness of Sodexo on a number of issues,” President David Oxtoby wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “The decision is unconnected to the unionization issues; it is simply another step toward improving the quality of the dining experience and the management of Dining Services.”
The original contract with Sodexo in 2000 was for a five-year period. It was extended in 2005 for another five years and was set to expire in June 2010. In that time, Assistant Vice President for Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson, as well as Director of Campus Services Margie McKenna, were reviewing Sodexo’s performance in the dining halls, so the Sodexo contract was only extended for one year, instead of five.
According to Robinson, Sodexo was given a chance to clean up its act over the summer and early fall. When it failed to do so, the college went ahead with a switch to self-operation.
With dining operations in-house, Pomona will have more flexibility in terms of management and food options, Robinson said.
“We have a lot more opportunity to tailor our menus [and] our philosophy, as a college, to the student needs and wants,” he said. “[The menus that Sodexo provides] are driven by the corporate machine. We would like the opportunity to get more fresh produce, more organics, things like that.”
Robinson also said worker issues did not play a major role in the college’s decision.
“[The WFJ issue] was a factor, but the bigger factor was operational: quality of the food, cleanliness of the dining halls, [and] responsiveness to management,” he said. “Union efforts were a factor, but not the driver.”
Workers themselves had mixed reactions to the news.
“I feel like we were blindsided,” said one worker. “I feel like it was a strategic tactic…the President probably knew that it would shake things up [and] slow things down.”
Other workers were happy to hear the news.
“I think that the management replacement will be a good thing [and will] bring positive changes,” one worker said.
One worker was sad to hear that some of his coworkers would be leaving.
“The managers [I] like are going to be gone, and [I] had a good friendship with most of them,” he said.
When asked if Samantha Meyer PO ’10, the new Sustainable Food Coordinator and a Sodexo employee, will be retained as an employee of the college, Robinson said her position will still exist after the reorganization.
“Samantha’s performed very well for us,” he said. “Clearly she will have to apply for the job through the Pomona recruitment process, but she would certainly be a candidate for it.”
Some students and administrators expressed concerns that board fees could go up because the cost of dining services could rise.
“One of the questions I have is: are we definitely going to be saving money on the costs of purchasing food?,” said Dean of Campus Life Ric Townes. “Because if we don’t have those economies of scale working for us, because we’re just a single entity, I don’t know [how it will affect our costs].”
“My concern at the end of the day is that it is expensive to go to Pomona College,” Townes said. “And at the end of the day, we don’t want costs rising.”
Robinson said the change could actually save thecollege money.
“The consultants we used did a little comparison and found that we, as a single entity, could deal with other vendors to provide the same food, possibly at a higher quality, and at a lower price point [than with Sodexo],” he said. “We’re more flexible, we can pick and choose who we want to buy from…and that’s the best thing about this.”
“It’s going to be a little bumpy, but for the most part I think we’re going to be okay,” Robinson said.