Fordham food has become quite the conversation starter on campus. It is not uncommon to hear students endlessly complain about the long lines at Così, Grubhub backups at Urban Kitchen, or interesting chicken textures at the Marketplace. I will admit that the lack of options and flavors in campus food can be disappointing. However, student complaints often go one step too far—they drift away from the food itself and move toward those working at the service lines. Despite some frustrating experiences with Fordham dining, I have found that the small interactions with food service employees never seem to disappoint. For example, students’ days are brightened by the iconic Starbucks employee Prince, who knows the entire volleyball team’s orders, or the Così breadman who always waves someone over for a fresh loaf. Given these uplifting interactions, I have found the mistreatment of the food service employees, going far beyond student complaints, to be very frustrating. As an institution, Fordham struggles with inadequate treatment of its food service staff because of unjust contracting, mishandlings during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a poor work culture for employees.
To better understand Fordham’s mistreatment of food service employees, it is important to note how unjust contracting has been stressful and unethical throughout the institution’s recent history. Fordham does not directly employ its food service employees; rather, the institution outsources its workers’ contracts through major corporations. Fordham has no direct responsibility or control over its employees or their benefits. The outsourcing partners over the past years—formerly Sodexo and now Aramark—have displayed poor treatment of their employees, raising major concern over food service workers’ contracts. Under Fordham’s past food contractor Sodexo, a unionized group of 225 Fordham food service employees fought for regular wage increases, medical benefits, job security, and pension plans for over thirty years. Despite Sodexo employees fighting to increase their wages to over $15 per hour, the average wage of a union worker remained at $12 per hour (Kozub). Sodexo’s failure to cooperate with its workers demonstrates the company’s disregard for the value of Fordham dining service workers and their years of loyal efforts dedicated to the company.
In 2016, a student named Jeremy Roberts started a petition entitled “Make Fordham University Sodexo-Free.” In this petition, complaints about the poor quality of food were voiced alongside concern over the 2005 class-action lawsuit against Sodexo that alleged the company of segregating thousands of its Black employees (Texeria). After the petition gained over five hundred signatures in less than twenty-four hours, Fordham’s administration promptly responded, issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) search that landed upon the current company, Aramark. In the search, Fordham’s Office of Student Affairs released a memo that read, ”Should a new vendor win the Fordham contract, they will be responsible for hiring the staff necessary to service it,” leading to some concerns regarding the then-current Sodexo employees being able to maintain their jobs (Kozub). Through this statement, Fordham effectively wiped its hands clean of responsibility for its workers by highlighting its lack of legal binding. The Sodexo union would simply have to deal with the new food servicer without Fordham’s support of its prior thirty years of fighting for better contracts.
In response to Fordham’s lack of institutional support towards the workers, the union petitioned and worked with Teamsters Local 810 to protect their jobs and contract provisions—a very stressful situation to put loyal workers through due to concern over joblessness (Kozub). During this chaos, Aramark thankfully ended up honoring almost all contracts. Many workers kept the same hours and seniority standings, but there was still much contention with the workers over retirement plans (Schliep and Cate).
After a difficult switch from Sodexo for staff, Aramark has, unfortunately, shown unethical business practices similar to Sodexo’s segregation lawsuits. According to the American Friends Service Committee, Aramark has been known to serve substandard food to prisons with safety and health concerns. They also use prison labor to package food—sometimes even forcing employees to work for no wage at all. Although Fordham students have expressed outrage at the fact that tuition dollars are contributing to such a company, the university has yet to break a contract with Aramark (“Aramark”). Considering this institutional history, there are a number of questions Fordham ought to seriously consider: Is it right to be in contract with companies that treat its employees in such manners? Do these contracts align with the Jesuit values of cura personalis and solidarity?
The history of Fordham Dining Services is marked by worker uncertainty over contracting, lack of university support of the former Sodexo union, low paying wages and benefits, and unjust business practices by the corporations employing Fordham workers. A clear picture of unjust worker treatment emerges.
Building on this background of unjust contracting, the university’s disappointing treatment of dining service workers has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. In May 2020, Fordham closed all campus dining halls as lockdowns caused money to rapidly slip away from the university. In such conditions, the school was unable to promise employment to contract and student workers, leaving them to question the longevity of their unemployment (Agaron). While putting workers through this uncertainty is not ideal, Fordham can be forgiven for such treatment due to the extraordinary events of the pandemic.
However, the way the university commented on these events is unacceptable. A statement the university released on the topic read, “It simply is not possible for Fordham to accept financial responsibility for its vendors’ employees” (Fordham Newsroom). Through this statement, the university once again wiped its hands clean of responsibility for its employees’ interests, revealing Fordham’s hesitancy to support its struggling workers in the time they needed it most. A few months later, when dining halls were tentatively opened up in the fall of 2020, workers at Argo Tea and Ram Café were hired back under the impression they would be employed throughout the semester. However, these same workers were laid off with only one day’s notice (The Observer Editorial Board).
While the COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly unexpected, it is in such dire circumstances that it is most important for Fordham to fight for all its employees’ well-being. The lack of revenue from tuition refunds and costs of online instruction proved to be too much for Fordham to maintain basic, just treatment of employees; with released statements and unexpected layoffs such as these, the university failed to support its food service workers in any way.
In fall 2021, when the effects of COVID were still being felt, freshman student Sebastian Diaz interviewed Fordham’s contract dining liaison Deming Yaun regarding the school’s current understaffing issue when it comes to dining services. Commenting on workers returning slower than expected, Yaun said, “As they suddenly realize the unemployment boost is over, there is no stimulus on the horizon, they’re feeling more pressure to go back to work” (Diaz). Although the ending of the federal unemployment boost helps get more people to work for Fordham dining, such demeaning language from Fordham staff members can be taken as perpetuating the idea that workers only return when their benefits expire. Yaun’s language is insensitive and shows a lack of regard for the good of Fordham’s food service employees, many of whom might have depended upon the federal unemployment boost to support themselves and their families. Throughout the pandemic, Fordham has shown a lack of concern for its food service employees through extended unemployment, quick layoffs, lack of transparency, and apathy for the economic situations of its workers.
In addition to the institutional history of unjust contracting and lack of support, the culture Fordham currently creates around its dining services—including availability of resources, coworker relationships, and student treatment—has resulted in a poor environment for its workers. Because Fordham outsources its food services to large corporations heavily affected by the pandemic, workers often experience a shortage of ingredients and general support from Aramark (Brubaker). Fordham is avoiding its responsibility to fulfill the needs of its workers that Aramark is technically responsible for—whether that be in equipment, organization and infrastructure, or adequate training—ultimately leaving workers helpless for components necessary for smooth operations. In addition, the post-pandemic rehiring and reintroduction of workers to campus has led to an overwhelmed and understaffed crew, especially on the Rose Hill campus. At the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, lines for the Marketplace, Urban Kitchen, Cosí, and Starbucks consistently held a thirty- to forty-minute wait time. To make matters worse, the university GrubHub service also went down often, which frustrated students who expected to avoid lines (Diaz).
Although students generally complain about these conditions, the food workers are those who truly bear the brunt of this chaos. When I interviewed freshman students regarding their experiences with workers, many admitted to seeing the negative effects that these working conditions have on the Fordham food staff: “There is a food service employee that comes to mind who sometimes works at the omelet station. She looks tired, frustrated, and discouraged”; “A lot of the caf workers and grill workers always look very overwhelmed and frustrated with one another”; “Both of the women who work smoothies at Urban just seem to be going through it; I hope they’re doing okay!” Personally, I have witnessed many employees look utterly exhausted and impatient, sometimes leading to fights between coworkers. For example, in October 2021, Urban Kitchen staff leaders had to hold an impromptu staff meeting to resolve issues of coworkers shouting at each other from across food stations out of frustration.
In addition to a lack of resources and poor coworker relationships, Fordham students sometimes treat employees poorly; many students are repeatedly asked to wear their masks to protect the staff or are genuinely rude when ordering their food. While this certainly does not apply to all or even a majority of students, those who do choose to act so disrespectfully only add to the plight of Fordham food service workers. Through the university’s decisions to inadequately support its employees, Fordham creates an understaffed, untrained, and overwhelmed workforce, ultimately leading to a poor everyday work environment for employees.
Although resources to support workers exist on Fordham’s campus such as Deming Yaun, the Dining Working Group, and Rams Against Aramark, these resources are not enough to change the culture of the working staff nor hold Fordham accountable for its lack of employee support. By his job definition as Fordham’s contract dining liaison, Deming Yaun is supposed to help manage worker contracts as he negotiates the relationship between Aramark and Fordham University. He is there to help support employees, but evidently he sometimes fails to do so. As mentioned earlier, he has used harsh rhetoric when it comes to the hiring of workers in the pandemic; he has also stressed the benefits of Fordham’s contract with Aramark when asked about the company’s unethical prison labor issues. When interviewed by student Joergen Ostensen for a piece in the Fordham Ram, Deming explains that “currently, Aramark contributes capital to the new Marketplace in McGinley Center, which would not have been possible without the corporation.” When given the chance to comment on Aramark’s unethical treatment of its workers or Fordham’s food service employees in the pandemic, Yaun has failed to mention or protect workers’ rights.
Another resource for food workers is the Dining Working Group. This resource, formed in fall 2020, states on the Fordham website that its mission is to ”develop plans for restaurant modifications/serving and daily procedures for reopening” in addition to ensuring “worker protection” (“Dining Working Group”). Although these goals are specific and made to benefit workers, it is unclear how this committee has been able to affect the day-to-day lives of employees. It appears the committee does not have enough oversight to ensure proper implementation of all COVID-19 related procedures to properly protect staff.
Finally, one last resource that is dedicated to helping food service employees at Fordham is the student group Rams Against Aramark—a committee formed through the Social Innovation Collaboratory to bring the food service company’s history with prison labor to light. The group is pushing to have Aramark removed from campus and has been successful in spreading awareness about the company’s business practices. Rams Against Aramark has met with the administration to create a plan of action, but their demands have ultimately not been met by the university due to its ten-year contract with Aramark, which is set to expire in 2026 (Beshara). Although these resources exist to help Fordham’s food workers, they have been ineffective in supporting the daily lives of Fordham’s workers.
Considering the current inadequate resources for workers under Aramark, some might suggest that the treatment of Fordham’s food staff would be greatly improved if Aramark was removed as a contractor. However, I believe these issues will not be resolved anytime soon by replacing Aramark, as recent efforts have shown that the ten-year contract isn’t likely to budge. In some ways, this could be positive for worker stability, as a new Request for Proposals process could cause more uncertainty for current workers, as the Sodexo switch did back in 2016. If Aramark is here to stay, potential solutions must help bring about a true culture change in the way food service workers are viewed, supported, and treated by Fordham under current administrative terms.
One solution to help the problem of Fordham’s workers being overwhelmed with the quantity of demand is to pair with local, off-campus food spots to make dining dollars available at off-campus locations. Bodega-style delis such as Best Deli or Rams on Fordham Road are already popular spots for lunch and dinner among students. However, if students could utilize dining dollars at these locations, more students (especially freshman students who compose the largest class in school history) would be incentivized to leave campus for food, relieving stress levels for current workers on campus.
Off-campus spots might be tentative about such a partnership, as they already receive consistent business from Fordham students living off-campus. However, it would be in the best interest of such small businesses to pair with Fordham’s meal services to expand their customer base to all students—especially those who live on campus and rarely buy food from the bodegas. This partnership would come at little cost to Fordham because these dining dollars would still be connected to Fordham’s meal services. With better food options, more students might even be incentivized to purchase meal plans. Such partnering options have been implemented by many schools such as Texas A&M, which has “retail swipes“ that allow students to use dining dollars at Chick-fil-A and Panda Express (Texas A&M University Dining). Considering the high quality of Little Italy’s food available right outside of the Rose Hill gates, it would be very beneficial for Fordham and Aramark to utilize these resources to lessen the burden of service on their current workers.
A second solution to help change the general culture around the institutional treatment of food service workers would be to hold Fordham accountable to its core Jesuit values. This solution is largely inspired by Gerald Beyer’s book Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education, in which he calls attention to the ways Jesuit universities have defaulted to the corporatized model of a university—one that involves hyper-individualism hindering bedrock values such as human rights, solidarity, and justice. This corporatized model has been realized by Fordham through the university’s lack of accountability for its food service workers in the name of financial resources and outsourcing of contracts. Beyer proposes in chapter 2 that an alternative to the corporatized model is true solidarity with the worker. If Fordham practiced this solidarity, workers would feel more empowered because they would know the university supports workers’ inherent dignity. Beyer highlights the inherent dignity of a person as the reason for the dignity of work by saying, “Jesus Christ himself toiled as a manual laborer, thereby revealing that the dignity of work and the rights flowing from it come from the fact that a human being does it, and not the work itself” (69). Therefore, all workers in the context of the university—from Father McShane to department heads to adjunct professors—have equal rights as workers and should be uniformly treated as such by Fordham. In action, these values call the university to value the dignity of people over economic practicality by treating all workers as members of the Fordham community instead of as financial commodities of a contract partner.
Jose. Sorarya. Prince. Khaleda. Damion. Vdaya. These are just a few of the 270 names of employees who serve the Fordham community with food services on a daily basis. They are employees tied to a union history of uncertainty over wages and benefits, affected by unemployment and financial struggles due to the pandemic and forced to operate in an overall poor working culture. They are employed by a multinational corporation that has unethical practices on the large scale of its operations. With a lack of resources to truly touch the lives of these workers, it is clear they are not being treated in accordance with Jesuit values. This frustrating problem needs to be changed from both institutional and student perspectives. Student protest has pushed the University to create some real change, but true progress can be made only when the entirety of Fordham comes together to protect its food service workers. It is far past time for the university to take accountability for all members of this community and show these individuals that their roles on campus are appreciated and valued. Likewise, it is on the students to embody Jesuit values and treat food service workers with respect daily. With just treatment coming from the whole of Fordham University, food service workers’ lives would be drastically improved.
Agaron, Michelle. “The Finances Behind Fordham’s Workforce.” The Observer, 13 May 2020, https://fordhamobserver.com/46440/news/the-finances-behind-fordhams-workforce/.
Fordham Newsroom. “University Statement: Employment of Contract Workers.” Fordham Newsroom, 22 Apr. 2020, https://news.fordham.edu/university-news/university-statement-employment-of-contract-workers/
“Aramark.” AFSC Investigate, https://investigate.afsc.org/company/aramark.
Beyer, Gerald J. Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.
Brubaker, Harold. “Just Two Weeks of Coronavirus Shutdowns Hammered Aramark’s Revenue and Profits.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 Apr. 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/business/aramark-covid-19-revenue-loss-furloughs-20200422.html.
Diaz, Sebastian. “Fordham Dining Works to Address Long Lines for Food On Campus.” The Fordham Ram, 6 Oct. 2021, https://thefordhamram.com/82138/news/long-lines-for-food-on-campus/.
“Dining Working Group.” Fordham University, https://www.fordham.edu/info/29797/dining_working_group.
Kozub, Sophie. “Request for Proposals Puts Benefits and Wages at Risk.” The Observer, 24 Feb. 2016, https://fordhamobserver.com/28028/news/request-for-proposals-puts-benefits-and-wages-at-risk.
Ostensen, Joergen. “Prisoner Discusses Working for Aramark, Students Call on Fordham to Cut Ties.” The Fordham Ram, 16 Sept. 2020, https://thefordhamram.com/76807/news/prisoner-discusses-working-for-aramark-for-slave-wages-students-call-on-fordham-to-cut-ties/.
Beshara, Maryam. “Rams Against Aramark Demands Severance From Food Service Provider.” The Observer, 21 Mar. 2021, https://fordhamobserver.com/61823/news/rams-against-aramark-demands-severance-from-provider/.
Schliep, Theresa, and Cate Carrejo. “Aramark Expected to Keep University Staff.” The Fordham Ram, 20 Apr. 2016, https://thefordhamram.com/33886/news/aramark-expected-to-keep-current-staff/.
Texas A&M University Dining. Dine On Campus, https://dineoncampus.com/tamu/meal-plans-faq#Retail Swipes.
Texeira, Erin. “US: Sodexo Settles Large Racial Bias Case.” CorpWatch, 27 Apr. 2005, https://www.corpwatch.org/article/us-sodexho-settles-large-racial-bias-case.
The Observer Editorial Board. “Fordham’s Treatment of Laid-off Dining Staff Is Disrespectful.” The Observer, 14 Oct. 2020, https://fordhamobserver.com/51318/opinions/fordhams-treatment-of-laid-off-dining-staff-is-disrespectful/.
About the Author
Lauryn Sweeney is a first-year student at the Gabelli School of Business majoring in Business Administration and concentrating in Social Innovation. At Fordham, Lauryn is also a student athlete on the women’s Division 1 volleyball team and is involved in the Pedro Arrupe Volunteer Corps and Global Outreach program. She hopes to apply her passions for social justice and action to a business administration career at a social service organization. She comes from a food-loving family in Southern California, largely inspiring her interest in the hot topics of food and mistreated food workers at Fordham.