Swarthmore students, by and large, are unhappy with Sharples. I don’t think that statement is particularly controversial; I think it reflects one of the major flaws in the residential experience here. Considering that improving the student experience is implied as a goal of the strategic plan, doing something about food at Swat seems like an element of that. Now there are certainly ways of taking the existing structures and revamping them to better serve students. But I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally address the issues. Instead, I think Swarthmore should outsource its food service if meaningfully improving its quality is a priority.
First, let’s consider the issue of local foods and sustainability. There’s a real reason why everyone on campus enjoys “local foods” night: the quality of what we’re served is drastically higher than what we get every other day of the school year. There is inherent value in regularly consuming more locally produced, sustainably grown food. It helps us reduce the carbon footprint of our consumption. That is an admirable goal that Swarthmore should prioritize as part of its commitment to sustainability.
Now to be fair, Dining Services do regularly offer a variety of locally-sourced foods in Sharples. That said, there are limits to their offerings, and expanding them certainly appears to be a challenge. In a roundabout way, this is where outsourcing can actually have an advantage over trying to source these products on a single-school basis.
If Swarthmore outsources its food service, the company it chooses is inevitably going to be more national and be responsible for providing food for more than one institution. This means more resources can be devoted to sourcing these products for Swat. As it currently stands, it’s difficult to justify allocating an entire staff member’s time to sourcing and purchasing local and sustainable foods. It’s simply not economically efficient. A larger company would be able to pool resources and more efficiently locate, source, and provide these resources than a single campus feeding only 1,500 students ever could.
Following this line of logic, outsourced food service benefits from economies of scale in a more broad way. By purchasing food for a larger group of people, a food service company would pay less than it would cost for a single college to buy the same food. In fact, Swarthmore currently sources some of its food and drink products in this way. We purchase our soft drinks in arrangement with other local colleges in order to increase the number of students in the contract and lower costs for everyone. And, if we’re interested in purchasing more local foods, which can be more expensive, doing more joint purchasing will allow us to decrease the cost of foods that we don’t source locally, like cereal. The money saved could be redirected towards other foods, improving the overall quality of the food we eat.
Outsourcing our food service would have the benefit of creating more of an incentive to be responsive to students’ wants and needs. Obviously budgets are important when making purchasing decisions, but it seems evident that an important goal for any food service here should be making the key consumers of the food – the students – happy with what they’re provided. The way our food service is currently structured gives little incentive for that to happen. If we don’t like what we’re served, we’re encouraged to scribble our dissatisfaction on a paper napkin. If food service is outsourced, the company chosen would have a contract with the college. If, at the end of the duration of the contract, students are unhappy with what they’re being provided, the college has the ability for recourse. They can either stipulate changes in the contract in order for it to be renewed, or they can simply decide to replace the vendor. In either case, sufficient incentives exist to make the food service provider responsive to the needs and wants of both the school and the students.
Now, one of the biggest objections around the issue of outsourcing in general is the subject of labor and what happens to the workers when such a change is made. The concern is clearly legitimate, but I don’t see it being a big issue if Swarthmore was to outsource its food service. First off, it’s wrong to assume that a new company would choose not to hire any of the current employees of dining service as a part of the changeover. Rather, what’s more likely is that many of the current employees, both in Sharples and in other places across campus, would be kept on and continue to work for whoever the new provider would be. Additionally, the college would have significant leeway in selecting a vendor whose labor practices and values matched up with Swarthmore’s when choosing who to contract with. Things such as salaries, benefits, and labor rules can be determined during the negotiation process with a vendor. The market for food service providers contains more than a single firm. We’d be able to select the one we felt best matched our priorities. That said, it’s important that we recognize the important work that Dining Services employees do for us every day.
Considering that Sharples as a facility has been identified as an area in need of work as part of the strategic plan, it’s clear that changes will be happening to dining at Swarthmore over the next several years. If the College truly cares about improving the amount of local and sustainable food available for students and increasing the quality of our dining experience, then the College really should think long and hard about who’s providing the food. Outsourcing seems to be the best option for the long haul if those truly are the college’s priorities.