February 22, 2016
At the risk of dating myself, I’ll invoke the movie Chinatown, in which detective Jake Gittes uncovers a grand-scale conspiracy involving the control of water in Los Angeles, a city suffering with drought. The corruption is so thick that there’s no hope of cutting through it. The famous line? “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
If Roman Polanski were to make a movie about the grand-scale conspiracy controlling what foods are purchased for hospitals, schools, and prisons … well, he wouldn’t. But if he did, our detective would uncover the near-nefariousness of the forces controlling what students eat for lunch, for example, or what hospital cafeterias serve. The movie—and let’s just give it the working title Aramark, as in “Forget it, Jake. It’s Aramark”—would introduce us to the seamy world in which food service companies like Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass Group use a byzantine system of rebates and discounts to squeeze out their competitors, that is, smaller-scale food producers. As a result, institutions—schools, universities, hospitals—are unable to afford to source a substantial portion of their food from other (i.e., smaller-scale or regional) companies.
How does this play out? In the movie, the Food Services Director of the Anytown, U.S.A., School District tries to buy broccoli from the farmer next door. She feels this is a healthy and ethical practice. But she is stymied: her contract with, say, Aramark, requires her to buy, say, 80 percent of her district’s food through Aramark’s preferred vendor, and the independent broccoli farmer can’t afford to discount his crops enough—or offer a rebate to Aramark—to make it possible for Aramark to adopt him as another preferred vendor.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future just released a report— “Instituting Change: An Overview of Institutional Food Procurement and Recommendations for Improvement ”—that spells out how all these systems work. The authors, Claire Fitch and Raychel Santo, also point out the opacity of the system, and they recount a real-life example: “These rebates have been the topic of recent investigations and growing public concern. The District of Columbia recently investigated Chartwells—owned by Compass Group USA—for claims that it fraudulently kept rebates from food manufacturers and distributors that the company was supposed to return to public school districts. In June of 2015, Chartwells paid a $19.4 million settlement to the Washington, D.C., school district. In 2010, New York State investigated Sodexo for similar claims, resulting in a $20 million settlement that was distributed to the affected school districts and public universities.”
The details of how food service companies control institutional food procurement are dizzying—and too dense to describe here. Fortunately, the report lays it out very clearly. Check it out and see if you can find any levers for change. Where our food is concerned, especially the food we’re feeding our students and patients, we should be able to do better than a shake of our heads and a “Forget it, Jake.”