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Be-trayed: How kickbacks in the cafeteria industry harm our communities – and what to do about it

For the past four years, Real Food Generation has been building a case to unveil how major cafeteria contractors like Aramark monopolize the cafeteria industry, hurting the communities they claim to serve. The resulting report, entitled “Be-Trayed: How Kickbacks in the Cafeteria Industry Harm Our Communities — And What To Do About It,” shines a light on long-hidden business practices that have rendered the food system rigid and unable to respond to crises like the one brought about by COVID-19. 

In particular, the report examines the practice of receiving ‘kickbacks’ and illustrates how these cash rebates, once a deal-sweetener for businesses like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group, now appear to be driving the companies’ business model and accounting for as much as half of the profits. As detailed in the report:

Three multinational corporations, Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group control 81% of higher education dining contracts and effectively act as gatekeepers to the $52 billion management industry.

This pay-to-play system advantages the food suppliers with the greatest ability to pay: the largest food and beverage manufacturers like Tyson, Cargill, and JBS.  

In the process, the system squeezes small and medium-size farms and food businesses out of the important college market.

Our Executive Director, Anim Steel, states, “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.” With just four corporations controlling over 50 percent of poultry, 65 percent of pork, and 85 percent of beef, one outbreak magnifies the health risks for processing plant workers who already have some of the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in America. 

BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION, BUT REAL CHANGE IS. 
Wherever student activists have been able to win and implement proactive procurement policies, we see a new food economy emerging that builds local resilience, advances racial justice, invests in the dignity of food work, and prioritizes ecological balance. (You can read about specific stories in our Real Food, Real Impact report.) 

We should never forget that the profits of the college cafeteria industry ultimately comes from students and their families. It’s time for these dollars to support community-based food systems, not the bottom lines of mega-corporations. 

To effect this turnaround, Real Food Generation has joined forces with others who share our vision for the food system. 

The resulting Community Coalition for Real Meals is a multigenerational alliance of students, farmers, fishers, ranchers, food workers, environmental advocates, and global justice activists. We believe that every meal should make our communities stronger and that public-serving institutions like colleges and universities should enable the solutions. The cafeteria corporations they contract with can join this transformation or face increasing resistance from informed and organized communities.

“Be-Trayed” gives students, school administrators, and journalists, researchers, food suppliers, and public officials specific guidelines for action, creating hope for the future and calling everyone in to take part.

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