Dining Hall Open Forums: Sodexo
Sodexo, the University’s current dining services partner, aims to “continue the momentum” of its work at the University, while reinventing itself with more diverse menus if awarded the new dining contract, the company’s representatives said during an open forum on Wednesday in Sherman Function Hall.
The forum was the first of four presentations by the finalists for the University’s new dining contract.
The Request For Proposals process began in September when Sodexo and the University mutually agreed to end their contract three years early to reexamine the University’s dining services. The current contract will expire on June 30, and the new dining vendor will begin on July 1.
“When we decided to go out to bid and put a dining RFP out, we really looked inward, brought new players to campus and really started to build some momentum on what’s new [and] what’s going to be different. We decided we really want to be here. We are the future of Brandeis,” Sodexo’s Strategic Partnership Executive Heather Muhlenberg said. “We put in a pretty detailed proposal. We made immediate moves to try to build some momentum.”
If awarded the new contract with the University, Sodexo plans to bring in more diverse food choices to the dining halls, including Lemongrass Kitchen for Thai and Vietnamese food, Mexican food from Amelia’s Taqueria and the Future-50 ingredients. It also hopes to expand its kosher offerings and partner with the Humane Society to offer more plant-based recipes. Other dining options include the teaching kitchen “Kitchen Academy” and the UCook station in Usdan, where students could cook their own food.
The layout of the dining halls would change, as Sodexo plans to break down the wall between Upper and Lower Usdan for a “food hall, micro-stall environment” and more room for seating, Muhlenberg said. Lower Usdan would have the Hoot Market, Lemongrass Kitchen, Louis’ Deli and Kutz Bakeshop, which would be moved from their respective current locations in Upper Usdan and Kutz Hall, as well as new locations Veggie Grill, “The Farmhouse” and “Simple 7.” Upper Usdan would have Mein Bowl, Amelia’s Taqueria and Dunkin’ Donuts. In Sherman, Sodexo would bring Simple Servings and the vegan and vegetarian Sprouts to the front of the dining hall.
Sodexo will also bring in a food truck, PRKD Pizza, which will serve freshly-made pizzas. The company plans to introduce PRKD before the end of this semester.
To increase community involvement, Sodexo hopes to work within the guidelines of University President Ron Liebowitz’s Framework for the Future. Through programs such as “Take Your Professor to Lunch” and themed breakfasts, Sodexo aims to work with the University on its goal of “creating a stronger sense of community on campus,” as stated in the Framework.
To further connect to the greater-Waltham community, Sodexo will continue to partner with Russo’s, a local produce company, and will conduct outreach and provide jobs to individuals with disabilities in the community.
In response to a question about sustainability, Sodexo’s Sustainability Director Annie Rowell said that the company has set a goal of sourcing 30% of its food from New England food producers by 2030 and will work with programs like Vermont First, Maine Course and Mass Impact to provide local offerings. Director of Culinary Innovation Rob Morasco said that the chefs would create innovative recipes that used plants to replace meat products in the vein of plant-substitute companies such as Impossible Foods.
To reduce food waste, Sodexo will follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, which includes reducing food waste, donating to food banks and creating biofuels from leftover food. Rowell highlighted Sodexo’s rollout of reusable straws and its partnership with Black Earth Compost as examples of the vendor’s commitment to sustainability.
Sodexo will combat food insecurity through a partnership with Swipe Out Hunger, which would allow students to donate meal swipes, and the Mystery Shopper program, where students can shop anonymously and eat with other community members without identification of food insecure-status, according to its PowerPoint presentation.
During its presentation, Sodexo aimed to present a reinvention of its dining services while furthering the work it had already done. However, Sodexo’s assurances that this time would be different were not enough for several attendees of the forum.
“I see a disconnect between what you’re presenting to us and what seems to be a pretty high level of discontent among at least the students, and I wonder, can someone explain that gap?” Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL, ENVS, WGS) asked. “Is it just a communications issue, or is it really that you’re putting a smiling face on something that isn’t as good as it sounds.”
Sodexo’s Senior Vice President of Operations Phil Harty replied that Sodexo hopes to build on its partnership with the University to improve communication, and that the company has “scratched the surface with our momentum.”
“When we have the most success as an organization is when we have a good, solid partnership steeped with transparency and communication,” Harty said.
For audience members with allergies and dietary restrictions, the prospect of Sodexo walking away with the new contract was worrisome, especially in light of incidences of allergic reactions caused by mislabelled food. In response to concerns from these students, Culinary Dietician Karen Jew said she wants to alleviate difficulties with dietary restrictions by being more available to students and by continuing to train staff.
“We do acknowledge that there are incidents, but you know what? It’s about what we do once we find out,” Jew said. “We’ve reached out to the student, we’ve taken action. We’ve committed to training our staff.”
Senate Dining Committee Chair Nancy Zhai ’22, who has been vocal about allergen issues during Senate meetings, said in an interview with the Justice, “I appreciate our committee’s partnership with [Sodexo] and that they want to build off of the current improvements, but I want to see a plan with more substantial and innovative goals to achieve them (e.g the allergen practice is the same as last year). I also wished that they presented more substantial goals to challenge the current practice (look [at] things anew) to regain the trust of the community.”
During the Q&A session, Brandeis’ chapter of Uprooted and Rising asked about Sodexo’s involvement in private prisons.
“Unlike our competitors, we do not operate or participate in any services in corrections in the United States. We do have some services we provide outside of the United States, but we only do that in countries that do not recognize the death penalty,” said Chief Operations Officer Cal Thetford.
Uprooted and Rising did not respond to the Justice’s request for comment.
Sodexo plans to retain the current dining staff under the new contract, and the workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 26, supports the continuation of the University’s relationship with Sodexo, according to the company’s PowerPoint presentation.