Sodexo, Luther, and the prison industrial complex

As most Luther students know, our school outsources dining services to a corporation called Sodexo. Sodexo is a French food services and facilities management company founded in 1966 and is one of the largest multinational corporations with sites in eighty countries. In addition to providing food services for schools, hospitals, and military bases, Sodexo also operates support services for hundreds of prisons in eight countries and directly operates five prisons in the UK. While I often hear students’ opinions on the taste and the variety of food in the caf, I do not hear many people talking about what it means for our school to do business with a corporation that profits off of private prisons.

According to the Corporate Research Project, Sodexo had a 20% stake in Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic in 1994. In 1995, it became a 50% owner of the Corrections Corporation of Australia, and in 1997 it was a 50% owner in the UK. Sodexo sold its CCA shares in 2001 after pressure from students at universities with which it contracted. However, it has only expanded its work with prisons internationally since then.

It is easy to find instances of abuse and mismanagement at Sodexo-operated prisons, including a BBC report from February earlier this year which states that inmates at a prison in the UK were improperly strip-searched and subjected to other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Sodexo admitted that it had not properly trained its staff.

I am only scratching the surface of what one can find on the internet about Sodexo, including poor treatment of workers, inhumane wages, and anti-union activities, in addition to numerous human rights breaches in prisons around the world.

From what I understand, Luther used to manage dining services on its own but chose to contract Sodexo as a cost-cutting measure to make Luther more financially accessible, especially as enrollment has declined and the school has had to find ways to reduce costs in all areas of operation. I  assume that one of the reasons Luther chose Sodexo is that it purportedly values environmental sustainability. I suppose it is nice that Sodexo has ranked “Best in Class” for fifteen years on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, but I still feel uncomfortable with the fact that the food I eat every day finds its way to the caf in part because of Sodexo’s direct complicity in the incarceration of people for profit.

In 2017, students at Scripps College in Claremont, California boycotted their dining hall to protest the school’s contract with Sodexo, which they accused of racism, exploitation of labor, and environmental violations in addition to its management of private prisons. Their student movement, Drop Sodexo, led the administration to consider not renewing their contract with Sodexo in 2020. The school is currently considering other options for dining services, including managing it internally instead of outsourcing to another corporation. Scripps follows  in the footsteps of Pomona College, also in Claremont, which broke with Sodexo after student dissent in 2011 and now manages its own dining services.

I do not have a solution for all of this, but what I have read so far has made me believe that more students need to start talking and doing some research. We need to decide if we are okay with the ethical implications of eating Sodexo food. And if not, what are we going to do about it? After reading about what happened at Scripps and other schools. I know that we have so much power as students. We need to be informed so that we can figure out how we want to use this power.

Opinions expressed in columns and letters are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Chips or organizations with which the author(s) are associated.

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