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The Carletonian

Mutual beneficiaries of high dining prices: Carleton and Sodexho

<pened my college email account this past Monday, I was surprised to find two emails in my inbox regarding last week’s column. Both names attached to these emails were new to me and the subjects seemed strangely nondescript. Truthfully, they baffled me a little bit as I sat staring at my screen. I expected them to be incensed letters of protest written over some statement I had made previously or, like last week, maybe simply a superior intellectual questioning my ability to write. Either way, I opened both emails.

The first was from a student who “fearing a backlash against [his] perceived heartless argument” wished to remain anonymous. The email read as follows:

Dear Alex,
I read your last couple columns and noticed that you’ve got a penchant for taking on controversial issues. I have a new one for you: our dining services contract for next year. Rumor has it that one issue holding up the decision is cost. Everyone wants higher quality food, but apparently higher quality may be too expensive. An explanation I heard for this is that Carleton currently pays our dining service employees very generously, to the point that the bidding companies would need to charge Carleton a lot of money to give us a higher level of food. One figure I heard tossed out is that we pay our employees something like $18 an hour. First of all, do you know if what I am hearing is true?

If it is, at the risk of sounding ignorant and insensitive, I wonder if Carleton might be paying our workers too much. I’m not saying Carleton should pay minimum wage, but $18 an hour is more than twice minimum wage—and an extremely generous figure for Northfield, MN. We are not talking NYC cost of living here. And if the rumors are true then the salaries we are paying our workers are preventing Carleton from having the high quality of food it ought to have.

What would you say to all of this?

After reading this, I wasn’t immediately sure how to approach the questions. But the second email proved helpful in leading me to a place to start. The email, written by Dan Bergeson (Carleton College’s Director of Auxilary Services and Special Projects) suggested that I come in and discuss the issue with him. I did this, and for the sake of time I will boil down the information that I received.

First of all, Carleton College has no knowledge of how Sodexho decides what items in the snack bar are sold for or what product mark-ups are. Sodexho usually will change prices on their products annually and these pricing changes are loosely proposed to the school administration for consideration.

I learned that it is, in fact, Carleton who sets the prices for meal plans and for individual meals at the dining halls. Shockingly, both Sodexho and Carleton profit from the food served on campus to students.

Lastly, and perhaps most startling, I learned that the dining contracts signed by both Carleton College and Sodexho is not available for public access.

Moving on in an attempt to answer the questions presented in the first email, I decided to talk to somebody who works for Sodexho. I spoke with one of the cooks regarding the issues at hand. And she informed me that the average hourly salary of a Sodexho employee is well under $18 dollars (it is closer to $12, but depends on the job).

It is important to understand, if the information I have received is true, then employee compensation is not the problem with food at Carleton College. What is the problem then? As I suggested last week, we are being over charged for goods. We know that as consumers, but because I have yet to be able to analyze the dining contract, the answers to many questions are being hidden behind a smokescreen.

I plan to investigate further, and will report on new information next week.

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