Big Mac on Campus
Introducing Matt May, campus hell-raiser.
Last year, the English major organized student activists to protest Arizona State University's $7 million collegiate apparel contract with Adidas. May demanded that ASU join the student-run Worker Rights Consortium, an anti-sweatshop organization that sponsors independent monitoring of human rights issues at clothing factories. May kept the ASU administration on the defensive by using creative tactics such as holding a "sweatshop fashion show" in the campus mall.
May got what he wanted. The college joined the WRC last winter.
Now, the 22-year-old May and his group, the Young Democratic Socialists, have focused their anti-corporate righteousness on a new target: the ASU Memorial Union food court.
In recent weeks, about 100 protesters representing a half-dozen activist groups have marched through Memorial Union. A columnist for the ASU State Press student newspaper charged ASU with supporting "institutionalized slavery." And May has publicly promised that students will "unleash hell" on April 4 if their demands for change are not met -- April 4 is the date Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The culinary controversy is complex.
First, protesters complain the meals served in Memorial Union are unhealthy. Second, ASU gave the food court owners, Sodexho Marriott, an exclusive contract to provide meals for university students -- which protesters call a monopoly. Third, and most emphasized, 48 percent of Sodexho Marriott Services is owned by the France-based Sodexho Alliance, which invests in companies that contract to run prisons.
The activists are demanding that Sodexho completely divest from private prisons by April 1.
"If they are not divested by April 1, this campus is going to be a madhouse come April 4," May says.
In other words: No justice, no pizza.
At a recent Memorial Union Student Open Forum Agenda Meeting, several Young Democratic Socialists questioned administration officials about the food court controversy. The meeting began as a routine affair with Memorial Union officials addressing student concerns such as, "Why is ASU's Taco Bell 7-Layer Burrito not the same price as the regular Taco Bell 7-Layer Burrito?"
Then, Memorial Union officials said they are committed to their 10-year contract with Sodexho Marriott, and pointed out that such a contract allows the university to focus on education rather than food service.
One ASU Sodexho manager, Christine Ziemack, said Sodexho will divest from Corrections Corporation of America, which operates prisons under a contract with the government.
Sodexho, she added, has set aside $70 million in preparation to divest, a figure she noted was quite a "hit" for any company to absorb.
May, sitting in the front row, launched his hand into the air.
"If they sold it now, that amount would reflect their loss," he corrected. "It is inaccurate to say they are taking a hit when they have not divested."
And then came his questions: "Why is [Sodexho Alliance chairman] Pierre Bellon saying they're removing themselves from the private prison industry while at the same time Sodexho Alliance is purchasing the Corrections Corporation of Australia and U.K. Detention Services?" he asked. "Doesn't the fact Sodexho Alliance is a presidential sponsor to the American Legislative Exchange Council -- a right-wing think tank that advocates elimination of teacher unions and cutting education funding -- represent a conflict of interest for a public university?"
Ziemack admitted she could not answer his questions. "I'm just the food service manager," she said. "I speak to you at least once a week trying to get your information to the right people."
May leaned back in his chair and dismissed the panel, as if he were the moderator.
"Thank you very much for coming," he said. "But if you cannot answer our questions, you're wasting our time."
Watching him ambush ASU administrators, May obviously has done his research.
But his talking points are not entirely his own. Just as May aligned the ASU Young Democratic Socialists with a national movement against sweatshops to protest the Adidas contract, his current campaign is only one faction of a larger organization.
For six years, the New York-based Prison Moratorium Project has rallied students against private prisons. The PMP claims that privatized prisons reward inhumane cost-cutting measures, and that prison contractors are inherently against rehabilitation because they have a vested interest in an inmate's continued incarceration.
In 1999, founder Kevin Pranis began targeting private prison investor Sodexho Alliance when he discovered one of its companies is the meal-service provider for more than 800 college campuses.
"Generally speaking, outsourced food service is something of a scam," Pranis says. "At a lot of places, students are required to be on a meal plan. The food tends to be expensive and bad."
Pranis says about 40 campuses have active anti-Sodexho groups.
Leslie Aun, spokesperson for Sodexho Marriott, says her company respects the students' concerns, but she draws a firm distinction between her company and its owners.
"You don't like our coffee? You don't like our hamburger? You don't like our customer service?" she asks. "Those are all issues we can deal with. But the issue of privatized prisons is just not our issue. That's not our business; that's not what we do."
Aun says May is correct in his assertion that Sodexho Alliance is invested in prison-management companies other than CCA, and that the company supports ALEC. "We also support the Urban League," she points out.
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."
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.