The new academic year annually comes with many changes in campus policies, but Binghamton University’s new food policy has caused notable controversy this semester. However, the greatest issue with the policy isn’t the new guidelines it lays out for student groups selling food on campus. Rather, the policy brings increased attention to a clause within BU’s contract with Sodexo that gives the campus food provider the first right of refusal, allowing them to essentially supersede a student group’s request to secure third-party catering if the organization plans to spend more than $200.
Sodexo’s right of first refusal has been a long-standing clause in their contracts with the University — the policy has technically been in place for at least the past 15 years. The difference this time around is that there is legitimate concern that it will be actually be enforced. In the past, the policy has largely been ignored by student groups looking to host events on campus. Many student leaders were completely unaware of the policy until this fall’s student leadership training, hosted by the Student Association (SA) at the start of the semester. However, when students reviewed the new food policy and understood the clause, they immediately voiced objections.
The clause potentially has far-reaching effects, particularly for multicultural organizations, because these groups may see greater difficulty using third-party caterers to supply their events with authentic foods. This is especially relevant at banquet-style events, which many multicultural organizations at BU, such as the Chinese American Student Union and the Pakistani Students Association, have held for many years. It’s no secret that Sodexo sometimes falls below expectations when they decide to serve the kind of ethnic food a multicultural group would provide at its most popular gatherings. The idea of a Moghul’s-catered event serving cafeteria-style food is disappointing, if not disrespectful.
Another issue is that the clause impacts all groups catering an event on campus, regardless of whether they were represented during contract negotiations between Sodexo and the University or not. While the University and the SA were represented during negotiations, other campus groups, such as fraternities and sororities, were not. Many campus groups fund themselves separately from the University or the SA — including Pipe Dream. James Ruoff, resident district manager for Binghamton University Dining Services (BUDS), wrote in an email that “the contract covers all property owned and leased by the University — it is not group specific, but more site specific as food safety pertains to all constituencies on campus.” But the first right of refusal clause seems to have little to do with food safety, and the Editorial Board questions why those groups should be required to spend their money according to a clause that they were not consulted on.
The clause also brings concerns that Sodexo could overcharge students for food. Although Ruoff wrote that Sodexo regularly conducts market checks to compare their prices to off-campus vendors, it doesn’t mean that an absence of competition on campus would prevent them from overcharging student groups. In August 2017, the new Dunkin’ Donuts location on campus was caught selling the same products at a higher rate than their counterpart on Vestal Parkway. This monopolization and subsequent price-gouging is something that could occur should Sodexo decide to abuse its right of first refusal.
Not all is bleak, as Deanne Ellison, director of Auxiliary Services, wrote in an email that there is a system in place allowing for exceptions to the first right of refusal clause. According to Ellison, these exceptions are in place for situations “…where specialty food or support of local establishments is in the best interest of the University.” But even exemptions don’t take away from the fact that this clause never should have been signed in the first place. This right of first refusal policy is not unique to BU, but just because other schools have jumped off that bridge, doesn’t mean that BU had to jump too. Given that Sodexo’s right of first refusal is part of a contract that won’t expire until the 2024-25 academic year, we don’t expect the University to revert back to their old rules overnight. Instead, the Editorial Board asks that Sodexo be aware of their role as a food provider and that they work with both the University and the student body to best serve everyone.