Big Mac on Campus

ASU revolutionary plots a schoolwide food fight

An FAQ on the Sodexho Marriott Web site accuses Pranis of unfairly singling out the company as a convenient protest target for activist-minded students. Aun notes that its competitor, ARAMARK, supplies food for private prisons, yet is not a target of protest.

"Apparently you can make money off feeding prisoners, just not off housing them," Aun says.

Counters Pranis: "Our position is when you have a for-profit food service for prisons, the commodity is food. When running a for-profit prison, the commodity is people. In this case, poor people and people of color."

ASU student activist Matt May
Paolo Vescia
ASU student activist Matt May

Criticizing cafeteria food is a longtime student privilege. Before ASU signed a contract with Sodexho in 1996, the ASU food provider was a company called SAGA. Students joked that the acronym stood for "Soviet Attempt to Gag America."

After so much vitriolic debate, the reality of the Memorial Union food court is a bit surprising.

Upstairs are Pizza Hut, Chick-Fil-A, Sub Connection, Culinary Treasures Stir-Fry and a Boston Market-style vendor called Corner Market. Downstairs, Sodexho has subcontracted franchises such as Schlotzsky's, Jamba Juice and Burger King -- so the food court is not actually monopolized by a single company.

Throughout the food court, students chat on cell phones while eating Caesar salads, bread bowls of clam chowder and vegetarian pizzas. The menu is fast food, to be sure, but it seems far from a human rights atrocity worthy of social upheaval. And any student can be free at last, free at last, by eating lunch at several nearby restaurants on University Drive.

So isn't protesting the food court a bit self-indulgent? Even spoiled?

"Students have no say in what food service providers are allowed on campus," May says. "It doesn't seem to me to be a radical notion that students should be able to democratically decide what they are allowed to eat."

Protesting fast-food companies is quite common in Europe, where there are ongoing protests against McDonald's. Like the ASU food court battle, the protestors are essentially objecting to the intrusion of a homogenizing corporation that puts profits ahead of local interests through the sale of unhealthy food and the use of self-serving business practices.

In this fundamental regard, the Memorial Union protest is also similar to May's athletic clothing protest and the ongoing sidewalk-sitting lawsuit against the city of Tempe. The issues are less about food or clothing or sidewalks, more about corporate influence. The lack of homegrown anything.

Listening to the alienated activists, it seems Sodexho Marriott may be a scapegoat after all -- just as innocent, and guilty, as any other large corporation.

"They take our culture, they take our street, they take our university," says May. "They're taking our identity."

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