Sodexho Contract Debated at Town Hall Meeting

BY LINDA LEE

On Tuesday, the Dean of Students hosted a Town Hall Meeting to gather student input on issues to be considered for the Law School’s new Food Service Contract. The two vendors who have submitted proposals are Restaurant Associates, which services Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, and the current vendor Sodexho, which also services the Kennedy School of Government.

Most of the Law School’s Food Service Selection Committee attended the meeting, but questions were fielded by Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove and Associate Dean for Administration Francis McCrossan, who chairs the committee. The committee has been working with members of the Student Government’s Food Service Advisory Committee and plans to make a recommendation to Dean Kagan by early May.

As Sodexho does not allow unions, labor practices were an important issue at the meeting. Students expressed a desire to see more discussion with the vendors about their commitment to a parity policy, which was addressed only briefly by both proposals. Under the parity requirement, the food services vendor must pay its employees compensation comparable to that received by unionized Harvard employees performing the same work.

Students urged the committee insist new vendors agree to more formal and concrete rights for their employees at HLS, such as “card check neutrality” and a guaranteed ability to organize. If HLS were a card check neutrality site, the vendor’s managers working here would not discuss unionization with employees and would agree to unionization if enough employees signed cards authorizing it.

Dean Cosgrove assured students that one of the school’s goals is to retain Sodexho employees currently working at HLS. A student recommended that HLS communicate directly with Sodexho employees on-site to ensure that they are fully informed about the process and can provide input about the proposals.

“I want everybody who currently works for Sodexho at the Hark and with the catering to keep their job,” Laura Binger, 2L, told the Record afterward. “I have not been persuaded that this is being addressed sufficiently by the committee – a “high goal” is not the same as an imperative. The most it seems HLS is willing to make a new vendor do is accept applications from all of the employees, but employees would have still have to go through a re-hire process.”

Binger explained, “The best way to ensure that all employees keep their positions is to keep Sodexho. The new contract should include a clause that when the contract comes to an end and a new vendor wins the contract in the future, all employees will be guaranteed continued employment – if not hired by the replacing vendor, then they will be hired by Harvard, perhaps at another site.”

Catering appears to be the major difference between the two proposals. The committee’s impression is that Restaurant Associates has “operates at a more fancy, but of course, more costly, level,” according to Associate Dean McCrossan. While the committee believes that Restaurant Associates can operate in the same price range as Sodexho in cafeteria options, it acknowledges that there may be a significant difference in catering costs.

It seems unclear whether student organization budgets will be adjusted if Restaurant Associates is selected. There have not yet been any discussions with Restaurant Associates about wine options or refunds like those provided by Sodexho for unused alcohol from student events. Restaurant Associates is a part of Compass, a larger corporation with many sites.

While encouraging students to try to the food at the vendors’ other sites, Dean Cosgrove noted that the food options available at different schools would vary, even with the same vendor, due to factors such as school subsidies and the amount of space available at each site for food storage. HLS subsidizes Sodexho approximately $400,000 to $500,000 annually to provide additional services, such as operating the Hark Pub and supplying free coffee on weekday mornings.

Sodexho was originally engaged under a five-year contract with an annual option to renew. The school historically exercised the option without much review, and Sodexho has been the school’s food vendor for about the last ten years. According to Associate Dean McCrossan, the Food Service Selection Committee decided to issue the Request for Proposals (RFPs) to ensure that HLS “had the best deal.” The new contract will likely cover five years, with provisions for annual evaluations.

Although the committee sent RFPs to six vendors, only four responded: Aramark, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), Restaurant Associates, and Sodexho. After site visits and meetings with the committee, only Restaurant Associates and Sodexho submitted proposals. While neither Aramark nor HUDS explained their reasons for not bidding, Associate Dean McCrossan suggested that they may have been dissuaded from proposing because the focus groups conducted by an outside food services consultant indicated that HLS is generally satisfied with its present vendor.

Jessica Corsi, 2L, asked about the mechanisms in place to get student input on future annual reviews of the school’s food service vendor. To get students involved, she recommended that requests from the Dean of Students emphasize that the committee seeks input on the food vendor rather than simply on dining options. “I feel like students are more interested in the contract review than food options,” she said.

Binger, who had attended one of the two student focus groups and spoken with participants of the other focus group, questioned the conclusions drawn by the consultant from the focus groups. “Being at the focus groups,” she said, “I thought that many of the student comments expressed concerns about Sodexho.” Dean Cosgrove explained that the outside consultant’s assessment was based on his overall evaluation, including focus groups with faculty and staff. Associate Dean McCrossan emphasized that it was an “agnostic process” in which the committee was clear that it was not seeking an endorsement for Sodexho.

Students at the meeting also raised questions about the vendors’ environmental initiatives, faculty discounts for food at the Hark, the availability of kosher options, and notices for allergenic ingredients. According to Dean Cosgrove, students have e-mailed the committee about issues ranging from “high level issues like human rights to issues about brownies and the salad bar,” and she welcomes any concerns about either food vendor at dos@law.harvard.edu.

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