Sodexho limits competition for campus catering

Starting spring quarter, departments and student groups will find their catering options for events and meetings limited. After a transition period of six months, which ends this quarter, a “sole source” policy on catering at Portland State will take effect, and all catering must go through the campus’s new and controversial food services provider, Sodexho.

Those groups who object to Sodexho’s prices, or the corporation’s history of anti-union policies, have three alternatives: hire Food for Thought’s catering services, apply for a waiver in the SALP office based on a handful of exceptional circumstances allowed by the contract or let their members go hungry.

Hiedi Bauer, coordinator for the English Graduate Organization (EGO), first heard about the new catering rules at a student group coordinators’ meeting in late February. According to Bauer, when the Sodexho requirement was announced, many students were very upset, and asked a lot of questions.

“I don’t like having my choices taken away,” Bauer said.

“I have two objections with Sodexho,” said Lisa Sibbett, Chair of EGO’s Central Committee. “First, there are the ethical issues. They’re shutting out other possible caterers. That seems like an economically hostile act … they’re not a very ethical corporation. My other objection is that Sodexho is very expensive, and the food isn’t very good.”

John Eckman, associate director of auxiliary services, said that this policy is not new. “It was existing when Aramark [the food service company that Sodexho replaced] was here, too.”

“The nature of the contract is that Sodexho is the ‘sole source’ for catering on campus,” Eckman said. “We waived the policy heavily at the beginning to tweak Sodexho’s catering menu. We waited until they were able to get that organized.”

According to Eckman, the contract allows for a number of exceptions. “There are the standard waivers. Groups are allowed to cater through Food for Thought. They can hold potlucks. They can also get a waiver if the food is donated, or if their group needs foods that the caterers can’t prepare, such as certain kinds of ethnic food. We will also work on a case-by-case basis, for issues of price or other special needs.”

Waiver forms are available in the SALP office.

According to both Eckman and Ariel Varney, Sodexho’s catering director at Portland State, the primary reason for the catering rules is to manage the health and safety issues involved in serving food to the public.

“There is no no-competition clause in the contract,” Varney said. “It’s mainly a control clause for public safety – students will find that on campus Sodexho is cheaper, we’re Food Alliance members and we’re working to be sustainable, which is part of the university’s mission. The way the policy is now, private groups can do a potluck. It’s public events that must use Sodexho.”

“Due to feedback from students, we’re doing a reinterpretation of the potluck policy,” Eckman said. “We’re expanding it to include bringing in things like pizza, as long as it’s a meeting where everybody knows each other. When the public is involved, that’s when we have to be very strict about the catering rules, because of the food-handler laws. It’s really a liability issue.”

Eckman added, “Since we’re going to allow this, it’s important for groups to clean up after themselves. Otherwise, we will have to charge them a cleaning fee.”

As for Food for Thought’s exceptional status, Eckman said, “We included that to support their business. Once they established themselves in the student union, we’ve considered them a secondary food service. We worked them into the contract.”

Dimitris Desyllas of Food for Thought said that the student-run cafe, which offers organic vegetarian and vegan foods and beverages, while promoting sustainable growing and serving practices, is expanding its catering operations.

“We’re working on the catering menu,” Desyllas said. “It hasn’t been a full program, but now we will be hiring people specifically for catering.”

In addition to organic coffee and locally produced baked goods, Desyllas said that Food for Thought can provide anything on its menu for a catering event, and may be able to fill special requests, as well.

Desyllas also expressed surprise at the campus’s recently announced catering rules. “It’s not an old thing, it’s a new thing. If it was in the Aramark contract, it wasn’t enforced,” he said.

Eckman said that the university had already negotiated concessions for student groups from Sodexho. “One of the main things they changed was the $50 minimum. Sodexho’s rule was that all catering events would cost $50, minimum. They’ve now lowered that to $25 … Sodexho has to orient themselves to the university.”

According to Eckman, his office will also be establishing an unofficial advisory board to address concerns with the company’s performance. “Now that Sodexho has been on campus for a while, we’re going to begin a food services group to give feedback.”

Regardless of price reductions and an advisory board, some student groups could opt to avoid using Sodexho’s catering services entirely.

“I think EGO will boycott Sodexho, and only go with Food for Thought,” Sibbett said. “Given the progressive environment at PSU, other groups will probably do the same.”

“People are pretty irritated,” Bauer said. “I’m pretty irritated- I would rather not feed my group.”