(Much of the following information was gathered through The Staff Testimonial Project, in which 47 staff members, mostly in CDS, were interviewed about their experiences working at Oberlin College. Read the interviews here:
All of us at Oberlin, whether we are students, professors, staff, or administrators, have the same goal: making Oberlin College the best it can be. But the management of Oberlin dining services is not the best it can be. We call on Oberlin to adopt self management to properly manage Campus Dining Services (CDS), improve the dining experience, and reduce wasteful spending.
WHAT IS SELF MANAGEMENT?
Oberlin College followed a national trend when it outsourced the management of CDS. At the time, outside contractors promised their buying power would reduce food costs. Experts argue that in today’s market with only three major dining management competitors, this ‘buying power’ doesn’t exist. (1) According to a 2015 report, 57% of all college and university dining operations are now self-managed. (2) The trend has reversed. Currently Oberlin pays for all of its equipment, employees, ingredients, and a CDS management fee for Bon Appétit, a national dining service management company. Self-management would entail Oberlin terminating its contract with Bon Appétit and hiring its own managers to run CDS.
WHY SELF MANAGEMENT?
CDS should be run in accordance with employee input and experiences, student needs, and financial sustainability.
Oberlin’s actions must match its progressive values. Bon Appétit is a subsidiary of the international food service company, Compass Group which holds “a meaningful ownership stake” in Trinity Services Group, the “largest contractor dedicated to the corrections industry.” (3) In addition, Compass Group operates in international prisons and detention facilities in more than 50 countries. By divesting from a corporation with ties to the prison industrial complex, Oberlin would make a powerful step towards its rhetorical goals. Oberlin could become a national leader among its peers in campus dining and labor relations by choosing food quality, students, and worker welfare over its corporate ties, with no long term increases in cost.
Oberlin has struggled with low enrollment for the past decade, but moving to self-management in CDS could help retain students because of better food quality, increased sustainability, and progressive labor values. Oberlin’s four-year graduation rate in IPEDS is 71%, more than ten points below some of its peers. (4)
Oberlin would also have greater control over its costs with the ability to manage effectively and reduce food waste. In the interests of employees, students, the environment, and Oberlin’s long term financial agency, we urge Oberlin College and Conservatory to transition to self-management of Campus Dining Services.
WHY NOT BON APPETIT?
Bon Appétit has fallen short on promises it has made to Oberlin College. Bon Appétit establishes CDS management policies, runs catering operations, plays a role in CDS hiring decisions, decides on menus, and hires dining hall managers and executive chefs. Oberlin College administrators claim Bon Appétit offers four things:
1. purchasing power
2. a bank of quality recipes
3. employee training
4. a pool of highly trained managers to draw from
BUT the effectiveness of Bon Appétit should be reevaluated considering:
1. Oberlin College has sufficient purchasing power to get the high quality produce it needs without Bon Appétit.
2. Bon Appétit has a bank of high quality recipes. However, these recipes are not given to CDS staff, even when requested. Instead, Bon Appétit provides recipes from generic websites like Allrecipes.com.
3. CDS workers report that they get nearly all of their training from past experience, Oberlin College, and their coworkers--not Bon Appétit. The Bon Appétit training that they do get is for specialized techniques that are rarely implemented. Often Bon Appétit trainings are cancelled because management didn’t order the proper ingredients in time.
4. Bon Appétit managers are often under trained and lack leadership skills and initiative. Some have harassed CDS workers and students. Bon Appétit managers who are respectful and good at their job are good despite Bon Appétit and rarely last more than a few months at Oberlin.
Bon Appétit fails to effectively manage CDS and has created a toxic work environment. Bon Appétit’s structure does not hold managers accountable. A former Bon Appétit executive chef at Oberlin was accused on multiple occasions of sexual misconduct, but was never fired by Bon Appétit. (5) Instead, he was moved to a university in Cleveland. Bon Appétit’s rotating “pool of talent” is used to protect the jobs of those who abuse their managerial power.
Dining employees have tried over and over to improve the dining experience, but their ideas have been dismissed either by lower or upper management. Many CDS workers are experienced and educated chefs, but see their talent wasted as they are forced to follow recipes from Allrecipes.com provided by Bon Appétit. Employees are embarrassed to make and serve food they would not personally enjoy.
Bon Appétit was originally hired as a union buster. Not only have they failed to get rid of the UAW at Oberlin, they have failed to manage union members effectively. Bon Appétit fails to support and guide committed employees or hold accountable those who don’t do their fair share of work. Bon Appétit cites the union as their main barrier to successful management, but union employees WANT to be properly managed so that everyone pulls equal weight.
Campus Dining has a massive food waste problem, which is not only an environmental issue but a literal waste of money. Money is effectively thrown into trash cans and shoved down garbage disposals after every meal. Much of the local produce bought through Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program isn’t fit for consumption, and Bon Appétit consistently over-orders food while failing to offer compelling menu options, leading to even greater amounts of food waste.
Poor management has caused several public breakdowns among CDS employees. Sometimes employees take mental health days off to survive their job. Staff needing extra sick days is not good for the employees nor the college. Some staff have panic attacks before coming into work, especially if they work at Stevenson. As one worker put it, “We call Stevenson Dining Hall, ‘The Big House,’ because it’s like prison. It looks like a prison, it feels like a prison, we’re treated like we’re in prison. Everyone will tell you the same thing.”
Stevenson’s ceramic tile floors have been a slipping hazard for years and several employees have suffered chronic pain, broken bones, and multiple surgeries from working there. All other dining hall kitchens have floors made of quarry tile, a more porous material that doesn’t become as slick. Some workers call the health issues caused by working at Stevenson, the “Stevenson Limp,” and neither Bon Appétit nor the College have effectively resolved this issue.
The administration believes keeping Bon Appétit is in the best interests of the college. But they’re wrong.
If you agree, sign below.
Michael Kennedy, Student Labor Action Coalition Co-Chair
Eliza Guinn, Student Labor Action Coalition Co-Chair
4. Carleton College is 88%, St. Olaf College is 81%, St. Lawrence University is 81%, Kenyon College is 89%, Denison University is 77%. https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/