With new food contract on the line for vendors, pressure mounts on UF administrators

Danielle Ivanov

For years, University of Florida students and agricultural coalitions have been pressuring campus administrators — with some success — to insist that UF’s main food vendor pay workers better and work toward offering more sustainable food options.

Now, with the vendor’s contract coming up for review in the coming year, they are bringing even more pressure to bear.

A letter sent to UF administrators this week outlines several demands for the contract.

It was sent by the Food Justice League, a local activist organization, and the Agricultural Justice Project, a Gainesville-based nonprofit rooted in local communities nationwide. The letter featured 41 national and regional supportive signatures, including some members of the Gainesville and Alachua County commissions, the county’s school board, the Alachua County Labor Coalition, UF faculty and graduate student union branches and a number of nearby farms.

The university’s multi-million dollar food service contract covers all food service on campus except Krishna lunch, vending machines and beverage pouring rights. Some catered events also are left out. The contract is up for grabs June 30, 2022, after the current agreement with corporate giant Aramark ends.

“This is an opportunity for UF to be a leader in the national university system and do something really substantial,” said Leah Cohen, general coordinator for the Agricultural Justice Project and one of the letter’s authors. “We want to see them adopt these priorities. We spent a lot of time and we relied on a lot of experience and knowledge and grassroots movement struggles to come up with this specific and concrete criteria.”

Some of the demands include:

  • All part- and full-time food service employees will make at least $15 an hour, and the vendor company will remain neutral during any union organizing efforts.
  • Vendor will commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20% in two years for meat, fish, seafood, dairy and eggs on its menu. Half of all entrees served in UF cafeterias will be plant-based.
  • A quarter of the vendor’s purchases in five years will come from family- or cooperative-owned local, small and mid-sized farms, ranches, fisheries, processors and other vendors. Eight percent of the food will be certified as just. One percent of the vendor’s annual contract profits will be spent to reduce barriers to the above groups.
  • Vendor will ensure health, safety, fair wages and right to organize and bargain collectively for all workers from farm to plate. Labor protection, health and safety laws and standards will be met for all suppliers.
  • Vendor will have an annual verification by a nationally recognized third-party, and the progress reports will be easily accessible by the public.

The justice league also has an online petition that lists and explains the demands with over 900 signatures.

UF’s current way of doing business does not meet the league’s goals. The university has contracted with Aramark twice now, first in 1995 and then again in 2009 despite pushback.

Under the current terms, Aramark pays UF a 10.75% commission on its gross food service revenue. In the last full fiscal year before COVID-19 hit, $36.9 million was generated by the contract, of which UF received $3,966,750, according to university spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez.

Over the years, some positive food system changes have been made with Aramark at UF, like a 2006 pay raise for full-time on-campus employees to $8.84 an hour, a $3.69 lead on the then-federal minimum wage of $5.15; a 70-80% increase in wages for tomato pickers in 2010 and, more recently, a commitment to locally source about 30,000 pounds of Florida-raised beef annually announced last March.

But Aramark has a troubled history documented not just with displeased UF employees and students but also at the state and national levels for its work with prisons and accusations of wage theft.

Since 2000, the company has racked up over $19 million in penalties for employment, government contract, safety and environmental offenses, according to Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center tracking violations.

UF President Kent Fuchs announced June 18, 2020, that the university would no longer use prison labor in response to student protests.

Cohen said all five of the emailed demands align with UF’s institutional missions as a land grant university committed to helping its surrounding community and the state. They also match up with goals from UF’s food master plan, created by Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc. and Petit Consulting LLC in 2019.

The plan outlines a series of ideas to improve dining on the UF campus that would help the university catch up to its peers in terms of food service and satisfaction, including providing a variety of quality, healthy foods from sustainable and socially conscious operations and local partners while still maintaining affordable prices for students.

If UF adopts the letter’s demands, it would not only please protesting students and increase stakeholder representation, it also would join momentum from local government and become a national leader, pushing closer to top five public university status, said Dmitry Podobreev, Food Justice League coordinator for the Alachua County Labor Coalition.

“These things are really important. These demands have the ability to really benefit many, many people in our food systems,” he said. “[UF] is a leader. They lead things all the time. They should take a stance on leading this as well and become one of the first universities to actually create a food service contract that is just.”

Alachua County Public Schools is already working toward Good Food Purchasing Program approval as part of its efforts to lower county food insecurity to the state level of 13% by Dec. 31, 2024. The program is a national effort for supply chain transparency and food system justice and sustainability.

The Alachua County and city of Gainesville commissions soon followed, adopting the same program at its Dec. 15 joint meeting and agreeing to urge its peers, like UF, to do the same.

City Commissioner David Arreola, who was absent for the vote but fully supportive, was one of the signers of Monday’s letter. He said institutions with a lot of purchasing power can effect important change with how money is spent.

When UF picks which food vendor gets its contract, he said, it also picks which practices are supported by its millions: green policy versus unsustainability, exploitation versus equity.

“There are some really key principles that we need to stand by,” he said. “This really is more than what food is served on campus. I think it would be great if UF took a stand.”

Moving forward, it is unknown how UF will respond to the letter. Fernandez said it is being reviewed. But the process to create the next contract is clear.

A competitive bid will identify the next food service provider, she wrote in an email to The Sun.

UF has a campus-wide Invitation to Negotiate committee consisting of faculty, staff and students. They will identify goals, values and language for an ITN document, which companies can respond to with business proposals after its publication. The committee will then review the proposals and recommend one or two qualified providers to Business Affairs. Finally, UF senior leadership will choose the winner.

While specific contractual requirements have yet to be announced, the university will integrate many of the Good Food Purchasing Program standards into its food service operations and planning, Hessy said.