Harvest Table chosen as new dining vendor
The newest Brandeis dining vendor is highly anticipated, but with an air of caution.
Harvest Table Culinary Group was unanimously voted in by the Dining Services Request for Proposals Committee to become Brandeis’ new food vendor, according to an April 14 email from Vice President of Campus Planning and Operations Lois Stanley. The new contract will begin in July 2022, and Harvest Table’s arrival on campus is eagerly anticipated by students, who have become disenchanted with the current vendor and catering giant, Sodexo.
Brandeis’ major considerations and values when selecting the new vendor were, according to the same email, “food excellence, hospitality, collaboration, and sustainability.” After an extensive seven-month decision-making process, the Dining Services RFP Committee has unanimously selected Harvest Table as the candidate that they believe will most align with these values.
This timeline included stakeholder interviews during the fall semester, extensive vendor materials posted online, a student portal through which students could share comments regarding the decision, and presentations from each potential vendor that included food served to the “hundreds of students, faculty, and staff” that attended, according to the same email.
Though the unanimous decision was ultimately that of the RFP committee members, other organizations on campus shaped the process as well – and were not credited in Stanley’s email. On April 29, the Justice spoke over Zoom with Josh Benson ’23, a member of Brandeis Leftist Union, who works closely with unionized workers across campus. Benson explained that BLU is not officially recognized by the University, but that BLU made itself a seat at the table when it came to the selection process. “While we were not officially a part of the process, we made ourselves a part of the process because the University was no longer able to ignore us,” Benson said. “That was something we struggled for, not something that was granted to us.”
Months prior to the RFP’s series of vendor presentations to the community, BLU, in partnership with the Brandeis Labor Coalition and the Nordic Skiing Team, created a “Petition to Support Union Dining Workers.” Here, petitioners made demands to retain unionized dining staff should the University switch vendors, and that these workers should retain their current contracts even if the University were to switch food service providers. They also demanded that the University not hire outside catering staff for events, and instead give the hours to the unionized staff, many of whom are signed up to work 40 hours a week and need the pay.
Despite being signed by over 400 students and stemming from concerns voiced directly by unionized dining staff, the petition was largely ignored by the administration. It was not until BLU’s March 11 rally and sit-in in front of University administration buildings the same day that they were able to effect change. Benson said, “It’s been instructive to people that we spent months raising awareness and signing petitions, and the University wouldn’t even give us the light of day, and we were able to accomplish in a number of weeks far more than in a number of months.” The University agreed to the demands to retain unionized workers and their contracts. BLU’s work ensured that from the start of the vendor selection process, “all vendors sign onto union recognition, and wage and employment retention,” they explained. This means that any vendor the University considered to be part of the final five that presented had to sign onto the BLU’s demands as a prerequisite to being in the running.
Benson also explained that after the sit-in, BLU was in coordination with the student union to create a public forum within the RFP selection, where people could raise concerns about specific vendors and dining at Brandeis more generally. Stanley stated in the email that the decision the RFP Committee came to was “directly shaped by the significant amount of feedback received throughout the process,” and that the student portal received close to 400 comments from students. But the University didn't initially have a place for students to voice their opinions at all – “until we [BLU] forced it, hence why we hosted the public forum,” Benson said. Prior to BLU’s demands for it, the forum was not a planned step in the selection process.
Another student group that was heavily involved, though not an official part of the RFP selection process, was the Brandeis Sustainability Ambassadors, a paid team of students that work closely with Mary Fischer, the head of the Department of Sustainability. Sustainability Ambassadors were involved in getting the word out about the public aspects of the selection process. BSA publicized the dining presentations that were open to all, and “making sure students know about the impact vendors can have on sustainability,” said BSA Lotem Sagi ’24 in a Zoom interview with the Justice on April 30. She explained that, for example, “If we want a more sustainable company than Dunkin Donuts, something that’s more locally run, that allows us to use reusable materials rather than their branding … the decision is in the hands of the vendor.”
Sagi said that BSA had representatives attend the vendor presentations that took place from Feb. 28 to March 2, and as a group, made their own recommendation to the confidential selection committee – and that recommendation was Harvest Table. “All the other vendors emphasized customer satisfaction,” Sagi said. “That sounds good, but what it means is that once the vendor sees demand for things like sustainability or allergens, then they’ll make the shift. We don’t have the sustainability labor [at Brandeis] to be proactive about this all the time. We needed to see a company where sustainability is inherent to what they do.” Out of the five vendors that were chosen to present – Nexdine, AVI Foodsystems, Bon Apetit, Sodexo, and Harvest Table – Sagi explained that BSA preferred Harvest Table by a long shot.
Sagi said that, for example, at Nexdine, the head of sustainability is also the head chef, which poses problems because sustainability is lumped in with the rest of the work they have to do. If sustainability is a part of their position, rather than it being a position in and of itself, she said, “it’s not really going to get accounted for.” The vendor states that their ingredients are both as clean as possible – no artificial ingredients, additives, or synthetic chemicals – as well as locally sourced, which they define as ensuring that up to 65% of the ingredients are grown, harvested, or produced within 150 miles of campus. “Everyone else was not even remotely close to this,” Sagi said, giving Bon Apetit as an example – they only source 20% of food locally.
Additionally, Harvest Table states that their ingredients will vary based on the season, ensuring that the recipes will feature “the absolute best produce the region is growing.” With Sodexo, Brandeis students are served out-of-season pineapple and melon year-round. Sagi said another important consideration was Harvest Table’s “real-time feedback, which is important in terms of allergens. It’s important to have real accommodations being made as things are happening.”
Harvest Table’s website outlines their major commitments under their “Our Promise” page, which they have categorized as “nutritionally balanced, additive-free, responsibly sourced, locally procured, and made from scratch.” The website elaborates on each of these values. Harvest Table writes that they prepare their recipes in-house, in the smallest batches they can, to ensure that food is as fresh as possible when being served. They emphasize that much of their food is made from scratch, from “salad dressings to doughs, pasta sauces and globally inspired dishes.”
The vendor also says they work with registered dietitians and wellness managers to guarantee that the food they bring to campuses can work for “a variety of nutritional needs to nourish every student’s body and mind.” Eitan Marks ’24, a student who keeps Kosher, explained that the food Sodexo served was “frozen, low quality, and often not edible for those with other [additional] dietary restrictions such as gluten-free or other allergies.” He is enthusiastic about the fact that Harvest Table has already shown a commitment to Kosher dining. “Even from the outset, the commitment they’ve made to ensure Kosher dining is a priority, and not an afterthought will set them up for success at Brandeis,” he said. “I can’t wait to try dining hall and Louis’ again in the fall.”
When asked what BLU thought of Harvest Table specifically, Benson said that BLU “did not offer an endorsement of any company. We offered a disendorsement of AVI, the vendor at Wellesley, where there’s been ongoing campaigning [against the vendor]. We showed up at [AVI’s] presentation to castigate them.” They said that BLU and unionized workers are “never enthusiastic to deal with any boss. No one is happy that Harvest Table is gonna be at the school, but we’re not bummed about it either.” Sagi said that while BSA made their best educated decision while endorsing Harvest Table, “none of this is indicative of how they’ll actually be when they come in.” She also lamented the fact that Harvest Table is a subsidiary of Aramark, one of the “big three” vendors, including Sodexo and Compass Group, all of which have ties to the prison-industrial complex. In reality, though the vendor is its own entity, it is also at the mercy of the university that is paying them. Benson explained Brandeis “has a lot of power over the vendor. Pressuring the University is how you pressure the vendor. The University says ‘jump,’ and the vendor says ‘how high?’” Sagi also said that though Harvest Table is under Aramark, out of the options, Harvest Table would have a “local sustainability” impact on Brandeis and the surrounding community because of where it sources its food from, and that it was the most “just,” particularly with regards to sustainability. “I am excited to try something new, and it seems like they care about being just in their company,” she said, “but I am a little skeptical.”
In addition to the work BLU and BSAs have done already, they plan on continuing to work with Harvest Table in the upcoming academic year. Despite negotiating contracts with vendors prior to their arrival on campus for presentations, Benson said that “does not mean things are set in stone.” They explained that BLU met with union representatives from Local 26, which represents dining workers on campus, and “sick hours and drug testing are things on the horizon.” Many dining workers have over 1000 hours of sick leave that they have accumulated over the years working at Brandeis under Sodexo, and the process of how those hours will roll over to Harvest Table has to be negotiated. Benson said “there’s going to be a need for continued support as the bureaucratic side of turnover [from Sodexo to Harvest Table] happens,” but that these things are not issues as of yet, and “hopefully will not become issues.” Sagi said that currently, BSA has bi-monthly meetings with Sodexo, as part of the Sustainability Dining Committee, and that presumably, there will be a similar system with Harvest Table. She hopes that as a result of these meetings they will “be receptive and get things done if something doesn’t seem right.”
The end of Stanley’s email included a warm thank-you from Brandeis to Sodexo, stating, “lastly, but very importantly, we thank Sodexo for their participation in the RFP process, for their service to the university for the past nine years, and for their partnership - especially for their support of our students throughout the pandemic." It’s an understatement to say students are relieved Sodexo will be leaving campus. But the process of selecting a vendor had a ripple effect beyond just the food itself, in large part due to the student organizations not officially included in the RFP committee. The work done by BLU to ensure job security for dining workers regardless of the vendor sets a precedent should the University choose to switch vendors again in the future. BSA’s work in asking questions about sustainability, and the public forum BLU spearheaded, incorporated student feedback into the process in a legitimate way. In a process where only few were offered an official seat at the table, organizations like BLU and BSA were able to make themselves and their concerns heard anyway.