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Captive Concerns

Local Matters


Published September 29, 2004 at 12:49 p.m.

Complaints about cafeteria food are practically a rite of passage for incoming college freshman, but one student in Burlington says he's got a bigger bone to pick with his school's food service than bland entrees or the dearth of vegan options.

Tristan McNamara, a junior at Champlain College, has launched a student campaign to get the administration to drop Sodexho Campus Services as Champlain's primary food-service provider. McNamara claims that subsidiaries of Sodexho's parent corporation, Sodexho Alliance, which is based in Paris, France, exploit prison labor overseas. He points to several sources, including the Prison Moratorium Project in Brooklyn, New York, and the Internet site, both of which claim that besides providing ancillary food services to prisons throughout Europe, Sodexho Alliance also owns private, for-profit prison companies in Australia and the United Kingdom. These prisons, McNamara contends, have been associated with repeated charges of human-rights violations, including slave labor and substandard living conditions.

"While I understand that Champlain is influenced by the same concerns as any other business," McNamara writes in a recent letter to administrators, "I cannot understand how Champlain can support a corporation committed to these practices."

McNamara says it's ironic that Champlain College would have a food contract with Sodexho, since the college requires all incoming freshmen to read Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation. Schlosser's nonfiction expose explores the darker side of the processed-food phenomenon in the United States, including its deleterious effect on human health, agriculture, labor unions and the physical landscape. Coincidentally, Schlosser is speaking in Burlington on October 1 at 7:30 p.m.

The nascent anti-Sodexho campaign at Champlain is similar to those launched in recent years at about 60 other college campuses across the United States, including an unsuccessful one several years ago at the University of Vermont. According to Sodexho USA spokesperson Bonnie Gordon in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Sodexho is the nation's largest provider of campus food services and has contracts with "about five" colleges in Vermont. Since this is considered proprietary information, however, she would not reveal which ones.

Gordon claims that McNamara is woefully misinformed about her company. Though she admits that Sodexho Alliance operates cafeteria and ancillary food services in about 100 prisons worldwide, she says those operations amount to less than 1 percent of the company's profits. More importantly, she says that neither Sodexho nor its subsidiaries own any prisons.

"We only work in prisons that are government run and owned, and we do not work in any prison facility in a country that has the death penalty," Gordon says. "That's why you won't see us working in any prisons in the United States."

Gordon adds that much of the misinformation about Sodexho Alliance stems from the fact that the corporation once owned shares in Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison system in the United States. However, she points out that Sodexho divested itself of all its CCA shares in 2001 because "we felt that the missions and goals of Sodexho did not fit with those of CCA."

That said, however, a recent web search turned up a July 24, 2004, press release by United Kingdom Detention Services. UKDS designs, constructs, owns and operates prisons, including HMS Forest Bank, a prison in Manchester, U.K., that accommodates up to 1064 male prisoners. The press release describes UKDS as "wholly owned by Sodexho Alliance, S.A."

Currently, Champlain College has no plans to change its food-service providers, according to Provost Russell Willis. Willis, who holds a Ph.D. in Social Ethics, says that "this kind of rhetoric" often arises when there are labor disputes with a company, as Sodexho has experienced at other college campuses in recent years. But he says he told McNamara to "keep the conversation going. That's what college is for, and it's a healthy one to have."

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