The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: It's time to divest from Aramark

Miles of distance lie between UNC’s supposed values & its actions. 

Year after year, students unearth discriminatory practices at UNC, revealing a dark core cloaked in promises. Within this core lies yet another injustice: UNC’s 20-year partnership with Aramark, an $11.3 billion dining services corporation that supplies food to thousands of institutions, as well as over 600 prisons and jails in the U.S. 

On the surface, Aramark is a pragmatic means providing dining services for UNC students, but is complicit in inexcusable scandal and oppression behind closed doors.

Academic institutions have an economic incentive to sign contracts with Aramark, given their cheap and effective meal services. However, Aramark is able to tout competitive prices at the expense of heavy undercuts in employee salaries. 

Additionally, Aramark is complicit in the prison-industrial complex, or the use of imprisonment and policing for economic and political gain. Aramark perpetuates incarceration in the U.S. by both serving correctional facilities and employing former prisoners.

Aramark’s contracts with prisons aren’t inherently unethical, but countless ex-Aramark employees have reported corrupt practices behind closed doors, including large pay cuts after employee onboarding, starving employees during their shifts and failing health code checks. Per a reporter at the State Press in 2011, an Aramark employee was fired after reporting rat feces and mice in food refrigerators. Numerous employees have raised concerns with a risk of losing their jobs and no change in practice.

I wasn’t personally aware of UNC’s contract with Aramark until a group project this year on COVID-19 dining safety on campus. I spent three weeks trying to schedule casual informational interviews with Carolina Dining Service employees and managers, but was met with a strikingly harsh response from Aramark’s corporate team, including a *67 phone call from an Aramark contact who declined to answer any questions and instructed me to stop my "unnecessary investigation."

I tried to interview CDS employees informally at Lenoir, but in the middle of my first interview, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the manager, who instructed me to leave. 

From my short conversation with the CDS employee, I was able to gather that there was little regulation of student COVID-19 safety behaviors in the dining halls. He told me that though Aramark has COVID guidelines at UNC — including reduced seating and take-home meals, but enforcement is low and he frequently felt uncomfortable with the volume of students eating indoors. This was a concern especially at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, when the delta variant was a rising issue. He explained that he was vaccinated, but feared spreading COVID-19 to his two daughters and their peers at school. 

Jim O’Hara, UNC professor of Latin, tweeted a photo of hundreds of maskless students in August, validating the employee’s concern.

Aramark has been silencing the critical employee voices that drive safe COVID-19 practices. Moreover, they fail to pay a living wage, have a history of discriminatory practices and repeatedly present a lack of care for their employees. Our CDS employees deserve a living wage and better treatment. It’s frustrating to see UNC verbalize a supposed commitment to equity while we simultaneously exchange millions of dollars with Aramark annually. 

The University's connection with Aramark has flown under the radar for too long. It's past time to end our contract for good and stand up against the prison-industrial complex with which Aramark (and, subsequently, UNC) is complicit in upholding. 

As UNC’s contract with Aramark comes up for renewal in 2022, it is critical to divest from Aramark and invest in a partnership with a food service provider that aligns with the values we claim to hold. Sign this petition to hold UNC accountable for ending its contract with Aramark and re-employing current Aramark staff to continue working at UNC. If we want to uphold our commitment to upending injustice, Aramark cannot be part of the equation.

Kaki McNeel

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

BSPH Nutrition, BA Health Behavior and Communications

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.