A day in Usdan
Usdan employees from diverse backgrounds and work experiences come together to provide food service for the community
Sodexo has been quite the hot-button topic on campus as of late. Speculation as to how the company treats its workers as well as the changes to campus meal plan policies has sparked a passionate discourse regarding the company’s standing. But the people who work for Sodexo, the employees who serve and prepare meals every day in the dining halls, are often overlooked or are awkwardly caught in the middle of such discussions.
Some of the dining hall workers are household names to students, while others are hardly recognizable because they work in the kitchen where they aren’t immediately accessible to students. I spent a day in Usdan chatting with dining hall employees to hear their perspectives on life inside and outside the hall.
Joe is caught somewhere in between these two types, splitting his time between the kitchen and the stir-fry station in Lower Usdan. An Egyptian native, Joe moved to the United States in 1985. A few years later, he became the owner of an Italian restaurant in Newton. Now a Sodexo employee, Joe has a strong affinity for his working environment at Brandeis. “We’re like family. Both the students and the people I work with,” he said.
One thing that Joe brings to the trade is his background in the food industry. He knows a lot about the production process. “If I see a practice that I think is wasteful, I’ll let my manager know. I have a good sense of how to run a business, and I am proud that I can help the team in that way,” he said.
The first time you interact with Joe you’ll see that he loves to chat and joke around. “I love to talk,” he said. It’s no surprise that he is disappointed whenever his manager needs him to work in the back.
As a Coptic Christian living in Egypt, Joe experienced some hardships as a religious minority living in a country that has often been looked down upon by the international community for its human rights abuses. Living in the U.S., he is truly grateful for the opportunities he now has. “I have a lot more freedom here than I had back home,” he said.
“I can speak about my religion openly. I can work hard, enjoy my job, and make enough money to buy a home. I live a good life here.”
Talking to Joe at the stir-fry station in Lower Usdan, one might be able to turn around, and spot the salad station across the hall. There you might find May, one of Joe’s fellow co-workers. Born in Hong Kong, she moved to the U.S. in 1966. Now in her ninth year working for Brandeis dining services, you can often find May chopping up lettuce and making Caesar salad.
May finds her job physically challenging. “Making salad and cutting fruit is hard,” she said. When you watch her work on the fruit, you can see what she means. It requires elbow grease. And patience. And more elbow grease. “It hurts my hands,” she said.
May’s knee hurts her too, although it’s not clear that her job is the culprit. Recently, she underwent knee surgery and often experiences discomfort.
What is heartwarming when talking with May, however, are the words of support that she gets from students who frequent her station. “The students will call for me and ask me how I’m feeling,” she said. “Those students are my favorites—they are so good to me.”
As a Sodexo employee, Zach Marlin ’16, shares a few things in common with Joe and May. He too works in Lower Usdan, and he finds his job to be the most pleasurable when he is interacting with other students.
A junior, Marlin has been working at the dining hall since his first year. He’s been witness to all of the changes that the dining services have undergone. One of them in particular has had an impact in the way that students treat him.
The transformation of lower Usdan into an all-you-can-eat dining hall means that Marlin no longer deals with meal equivalencies, and the difficulties that ensued. “Oftentimes last year, I would have to tell people that what they purchased exceeded the cost of a meal. Some would give me an annoyed look or complain and ask ‘can’t you just let me through?’ It’s nice to not have to deal with that anymore.”
Marlin rarely receives negative attitudes from students. “Although the company may garner a lot of criticism, it’s rare that any individual employee receive the same treatment,” he said. However, Marlin does feel that some of the workers may not get the positive recognition that they deserve due to the company’s reputation.
Someone has to make the University’s food, and Sodexo employees carry out that task every day. Whether students choose to interact with them or not is up to each individual. Yet, it seems that interactions between students and Sodexo employees are what make the employees’ work experiences the most pleasurable for them. That sort of joy can make all the difference in someone’s day.