Students frequent the Reitz Union for a study break, maybe a cup of Starbucks coffee, sub or snack. However, few would know that these snacks are sourced from prison labor.
A coalition of Dream Defenders, the UF chapter of NAACP, the UF Black Student Union and The Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery at UF sent a letter to the UF administration and the Food Services Advisory Committee Jan 18. announcing its boycott of the food services within the Reitz Union until the administration chooses a different food contractor. The complaints aren’t necessarily with UF, but with Aramark, the food contractor for all of the dining halls, restaurants, and most food locations on campus. That sandwich you bought at the Subway by Turlington, that Starbucks in the Library West, that’s all provided by Aramark.
The organizations championing the boycott include the UF Black Student Union (BSU), Dream Defenders, Gator Chapter of the NAACP, UF Hispanic Student Association (HAS) and the UF Women’s Student Association.
The demands are simple – UF shouldn’t renew its contract with Aramark, which is up for negotiations in February.
The Vice President of the UF chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Khoury, a 22-year-old senior political science and African American studies major, says their reasons for this boycott are twofold. The first issue with contracting Aramark is that it’s not environmentally friendly or sustainable. The boycott coalition is demanding UF contract a provider that has “a commitment to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions; justice for farm workers, farmers, and food system workers; an increase in local sourcing of food products; and concrete accountability measures,” as stated within the Food Justice League’s goals.
Aramark is one of the ‘Big Three’ (among Sodexo and Compass Group) controlling “81% of higher education contracts and effectively act as gatekeepers to the $52 billion management industry.”
Executive Director of Real Food Generation Amin Steel stated, “Family farmers, independent ranchers, owner-operated fishing boats and cooperatively-run food businesses are precisely the sectors of the food economy that provide vibrancy and resilience to communities in both good and bad times.” As so few corporations control the majority of the meat industry, a single outbreak puts those workers, who already have some of the lowest-paid jobs in America, at risk.
The second reason for the boycott coalition’s insistence against using Aramark is the company’s “despicable history of human rights violations” and association with the prison industrial complex, according to the coalition’s letter. Aramark has a history of using prison labor, which the boycott coalition is demanding UF separate itself from.
The company supplies food to correctional facilities and has done so for over 45 years, as well as serving college campuses. Aramark implemented a program named IN2WORK, stating that it “teaches the fundamentals of food service, resulting in skills and experience that can be leveraged to re-enter the workforce.”
The UF chapter of the NAACP and the boycott coalition stated they don’t support the existence of prisons, so using prisoners as nearly unpaid labor violates their belief systems. Incarcerated laborers don’t make minimum wage, serving as a prudent financial decision on the part of Aramark, but this violates the tenants that the boycott coalition and what UF claims to stand for.
Although UF has been known to use prison labor in the past, and despite the university’s newfound apparent commitment to cease its use with IFAS’s claim, UF continues to benefit from the prison industrial complex through its third-party contractors, like Aramark.
The coalition is demanding a $15 minimum wage for “all UF contracted employees,” in line with the minimum wage amendment that passed in Florida this past election.
If UF is serious about making good on its promises to the campus community, it needs to make real moves, not empty platitudes.
The Reitz Union is the base for this boycott. Despite Aramark providing for the many other food outlets on campus, the Reitz serves as the epicenter due to its high concentration of restaurants and food places.
The student union is currently a hotbed for student-led activism; the petition to change its name gained popularity among students due to the former president’s association with homophobia and the persecution of students and faculty.
Despite the importance of this grassroots movement, Khoury urges support from the student body. Changing the name of the Reitz Union, Khoury says, is a great way to “reconcile the past,” but the negotiations with Aramark are happening now, and the window for change is small. That’s why the boycott coalition is urging students to involve themselves now by simply refusing to eat or buy food at the Reitz Union.
Andrew Taramykin, an 18-year-old freshman political science and economics major, served as a volunteer, handing out fliers outside of the Reitz Union and talking to students about the group’s concerns, after seeing a promotional post on the Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery’s Instagram account.
“The boycott is intended to pressure the university into contracting with a more ethical food service provider that will meet the demands stipulated by the Food Justice League regarding how workers are treated and food is sourced,” Taramykin said. “Therefore, the boycott will probably last in earnest until UF has signed a new food service contract with a company that reflects our community’s values.”
Student involvement is key to affecting change. The conversation must continue for the protest to live on until UF contracts a new food service provider.
“I’m a big believer that change is made at the communal level, and that requires strong interpersonal interactions,” Taramykin said. “The key for us has got to be keeping the conversation growing and thriving.” Participating in the protest can be as simple as not purchasing food at the Reitz Union. To get more involved, check out Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery at UF on Facebook and Instagram and message them @goddsvilledd. The link in the bio sends an automated email in support of their demands to UF administration.