Twelve more years and counting.
On July 1, UT opted to extend their preexisting contract with food services provider Aramark for an additional five years, with the current version set to expire on May 30, 2027.
Very little publicity was paid to this extension, a fact which Jeff Maples, senior associate vice chancellor for finance and administration, said he largely sees as a non-issue.
“I couldn't tell you,” said Maples on the lack of publicity paid to the contract extension with Aramark. “Every time we sign a contract, the university doesn't send out a press release.”
With the Aramark partnership lasting well into the next decade, Maples cited the university's need to finance the growing dining facilities as one of the main factors behind the decision.
Phase II of the Student Union building, which will feature several new dining facilities, is projected to cost around $170 million, while the two story building set to replace the aging Presidential Court Building, which houses the PCB cafeteria, is projected to cost close to $35 million.
Another new $18 million dining facility is also scheduled to open January 2017 alongside a new residence hall on the corner of Volunteer and Lake Loudon Boulevards. These new facilities are designed with a “fresh food concept” that Maples said will offer healthier alternatives for the student body.
Maples also explained that university ownership of all dining equipment on campus ultimately gives the university the upper hand to ensure quality service is maintained.
“If they don't perform, we can tell them to leave, and we can bring in another contractor in here,” he said.
But it is no secret that UT students do not share the administration's confidence in the corporate giant's ability to provide quality food and services to campus.
Erica Davis, a senior member of UT's Real Food Challenge, has consistently worked to increase the presence of “real food” on campus, encompassing foods that are either local, fair, ecologically sound or produced in a humane fashion.
Davis helped spearhead the Real Food Challenge's 2020 initiative on campus, which aims to raise the portion of UT's food service budget dedicated to real foods to 20 percent by 2020. Despite penning an open letter Monday to Aramark laying out specific steps to more sustainable food practices, Davis said she has often been frustrated by what she sees as a lack of transparency from the food service provider.
“What we've seen is that transparency, or lack of transparency rather, is one of the major problems we have with Aramark as our dining provider,” Davis said. “We feel, as students, that information should be available to us ... If we're required to buy food with our mandatory meal plans, we should know what we're buying.”
The Daily Beacon reached out to Aramark for comment but no immediate reply was given.
As director of the Environment & Sustainability committee, Davis said she feels her efforts to cooperate with Aramark are not only reasonable but in line with the image laid out by the company's website --- to endorse “environmentally friendly policies that support sustainability” and “an industry-leading health and wellness platform to promote healthy living.”
“We're just really asking that they take the steps necessary to fulfill that image that they do hope to create,” Davis said.
For former SGA presidential candidate, Grayson Hawkins, a junior in engineering, the path to UT's salvation lies in separating from the food service provider.
In the past SGA election, Hawkins ran as an independent candidate whose platform largely focused on the broken relationship between the university and Aramark, a stance he has never shied away from.
Hawkins pointed to the frequent national headlines that often depict the corporate giant in a negative light, ranging from hunger strikes in a New Jersey prison to protests from Michigan prisoners over food shortages and lack of quality.
For Hawkins, UT's saving grace could come in the form of an in-house dining operation similar to schools like Princeton, but he maintained that an overall lack of student involvement in campus issues, coupled with the nearly $40 million UT received from Aramark in the past 10 years, make such a future highly unlikely.
“They can be as transparent or not as transparent as possible, but the students are never in the decision making process,” Hawkins said of the corporation. “There is no possible way to get rid of Aramark unless the student body actually cares.”