Hungry students at Sheridan College Trafalgar Campus seem to have a number of options for food.
There are two Tim Horton’s, a Second Cup café, the Marquee, the Union Burrito restaurant, Coffee Loft and the Cafeteria, which has a Harvey’s, Subway, Pizza Pizza and a Thai Express. But this variety is deceiving, since all of those options (excluding the Student Union-ran Union Burrito, Marquee and Coffee Loft), are controlled by a single company: Chartwells. Foodservices at Sheridan are operated by Chartwells, which is subcontracted to the aforementioned companies. With no competition in most companies, Chartwells has a monopoly on what students and faculty eat and how much they pay. Furthermore, despite its prominence as a food provider for colleges and universities, Chartwells is not a company with a reputation for honest, ethical practices.
Access to affordable, quality food questionable
Access to affordable, quality food is a major issue for Canadian students, as well as a recurring grievance that many students have. Plagued by rising tuition fees and crippling student debt, students are strongly impacted by costly food. For several foodservice companies, however, starving students are an opportunity to artificially jack up prices. According to a 2013 report by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, monopolized foodservices are directly related to higher prices. This is particularly true in isolated schools where “many institutions being located in remote locations, food vendors have the ability to charge higher prices than usual due to the lack of alternative options”. Luckily, Sheridan College Trafalgar is not a remote location as there are nearby restaurants and grocery stores. But for students who eat at Sheridan regularly, the track record of Chartwells should be alarming. Chartwells is a subsidiary of the food services conglomerate Compass Group, a large British company that employs roughly 500,000 people worldwide and posted a net income of £877 million in 2015. As lucrative as the foodservice industry has been for Compass, their success has come with a litany of controversies on a global scale. The United Nations suspended their contract with the company after allegations of contract bidding irregularities had surfaced. Several Compass subsidiaries were indicted for illegally selling “beef” products in Europe that were found to contain horsemeat.
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Lawsuit filed in the past
Compass’s practices in North America are not promising either. Compass Group and its subsidiary companies have had scandals involving schools where they were contracted to provide food services. In Washington DC, the former director of food services for D.C. schools filed a lawsuit against Chartwells, alleging that the company overcharged for its services and mismanaging the food it provided. The lawsuit against the company lead to an investigation by the D.C. attorney general’s office, which found that Chartwells intentionally submitted false invoices that the school system paid. Chartwells was obliged by their contract to purchase food at low cost, but the lawsuit alleged that they bought highly processed foods at higher prices. Chartwells agreed to pay $19 million in the settlement, but unsurprisingly, they did not admit to wrongdoing. The story has been repeated across schools in America. In 2012, Compass had to pay $18 million in a settlement with the New York Attorney General’s Office for overcharging New York school districts for food they provided. Almost 40 schools and school districted in New York were overcharged by Compass and its subsidiary corporations. In other schools, Chartwells was accused of misdeeds with worse consequences than shortchanging students and taxpayers. In 2013, students at Washburn University in Kansas were unwittingly risking their safety while they sated their appetites. According to the university newspaper The Washburn, the Kansas Department of Agriculture cited Chartwells for a total of 10 serious health code violations. These violations included cooked meat being stored for five weeks longer than regulations allowed, damaged plastic food containers, hand-washing violations from employees, and improper food washing practices. The Department of Agriculture gave Chartwells ten days to fix these issues, but the demands were not met. Despite failing to initially resolve these issues, no penalties were enforced.
Far from being hapless victims of Chartwells questionable practices, students and public sector unions across North America have been vocal in their opposition to Compass Group’s control over food. In Farmington Connecticut, students staged a boycott against Chartwells’ after enduring unsanitary food, which was often undercooked and contaminated by mould, insects and human hair. Chartwells was then dropped as a provider. North of the border, the Canadian Union of Public Employees sector 3799 conducted an investigation into the foodservices at the University of Northern British Columbia. Once again, Chartwells was the primary provider. Students were polled about their eating habits and their opinions of food services at the University, and the result was that 19 percent of students were satisfied with the food, with 15% satisfied with the cost and 19% with the quality. Chartwells reputation has caused it to lose business in at least one Canadian university; heeding complaints from students, the University of Winnipeg dropped Chartwells as a provider in 2009 and switched to a locally-based food provider, Diversity Foods.
In order to gain an insight into how Chartwells justifies their relationship with Sheridan College, we called Fadi Zuriekat, the General Manager of Compass Group Canada. When asked about affordability, he mainly spoke about combos that vendors provide (a ubiquitous policy for restaurants), but did not state whether they ensured that prices were equal to that of off-campus restaurants like Subway or Harvey’s. According to Sheridan College’s 2016/2017 Business Plan and Operating and Capital Budget, $875,000 was listed for the cafeteria lease income under the Ancillary Operations Revenue. However, when asked about the annual profits made by Chartwells from its contract with Sheridan College, Zuriekat said that this information could not be released. He did not specify why this information was confidential either.
On Zuriekat’s profile on Sheridan’s DineOnCampus.ca page, he claims to live by the motto “the customer always deserves the best”. If allegations about mismanagement in foodservices emerge at Sheridan College, Chartwells could be forced to eat their words.
Listen to the full interview: