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World Meeting of Families: You’ll buy lunch and a stuffed Pope from Aramark, often sued over prison food

An estimated two million people will crush into Philly in late September for two major reasons: The World Meeting of Families and the Pope.

For most, the adorable plush Pope dolls selling for $20 a pop will be the closest they get to Mr. Pontifex, and those come courtesy of Aramark, the local corporation Mayor Michael Nutter announced earlier this month won the papal merchandising bid.

But what’s behind the name atop the skyscraper? Aside from its airplane meals and high school cafeteria food, Aramark also feeds millions of meals a day to U.S. prisoners at about $3 per day per inmate — with a heaping helping of lawsuits.

Charges against Aramark

Aramark’s work in prisons is controversial. Consider the laundry list of complaints filed over the years against the company over its prison contracts. The almost $14 billion in revenue that makes Aramark No. 18 on the Forbes 500 has come with a side of lawsuits, fines, and terminated contracts.

The food service provider, whose tower looms amidst the Philadelphia skyline, has prepped maggot-infested food, and served rodent-nibbled cake and food from the trash. In 2013, Aramark provided food for 600 correctional facilities around the US. It made menu substitutions to cut costs, and Aramark workers have repeatedly been charged with smuggling drugs into facilities and sexually abusing prisoners.

According to the self-described progressive news site TruthDig in 2013, once Aramark took over the contract for Burlington County Jail in Mt. Holly, NJ, the guards would no longer eat the food. The inmates were persistently sick. Vomiting and diarrhea were commonplace in the facility. At another New Jersey correctional facility, a prisoner paints an almost absurdly bleak portrait of working in an Aramark kitchen:

“There were mice running around and mice droppings everywhere. The utensils for cooking were dirty. Many of the prisoners preparing the food would use the bathroom and then not wash their hands or wear gloves. Hair fell into the food. The bread was stale and hard. And the portions we were required to serve were real small. You could eat six portions like the ones we served … and still be hungry. If we put more than the required portion on the tray the Aramark people would make us take it off. It wasn’t civilized. I lost 30 pounds. I would wake up at night and put toothpaste in my mouth to get rid of the hunger urge.”

Of course, it’s tough to be the low bidder in the public-private partnership around prison food. The company is incentivized to keep spending to a minimum so that it can make the greatest profit while costing state taxpayers the lowest amount of money. The only losers are the people who are forced to eat the food.

Questions about ethics and legality

The corporation has come under fire for reporting meals that were not actually served and making “improper substitutions” to its menus. A 2007 internal audit of Aramark’s role in Florida prisons showed citizen taxes were going toward 6,000 meals a day that went unserved. Prisoners had stopped showing up for meals because they were either too wretched or too meager and, accordingly, Aramark was saving $4.9 million a year.

Audits and FOIA requests in Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky all came up with similar results. Riots at Northpoint Training Center in Kentucky in 2007 and 2009 were due in part to Aramark food quality.

And as far back as 1972, Aramark had a monopoly on the vending machine market, after purchasing 97 different vending companies. The FTC brought charges against the corporation for anticompetitive behavior and by the late ’70s, Aramark had totally divested itself of the vending machine market.

What the archdiocese says

Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler has repeatedly cited “special interest groups” for going after Aramark, though a lot of the allegations have come from state governments. In response to the St. Louis incident, where prisoners were served food that had been chewed by rodents, Cutler told the Detroit Free Press, “Food service is a top priority that we take very seriously.” And, “Our processes and procedures are industry leading, and if issues are raised, we fix them immediately.” The employee who served the bad food was fired soon after the incident.

Archdiocese of Philadelphia Spokesperson Ken Gavin said in an email to Billy Penn that the World Meeting of Families “has every confidence in [Aramark’s] ability to make this occasion a special one for pilgrims from around the world.” The Archdiocese has repeatedly stressed that Aramark is a local company with a global reach and has lead the hospitality industry for decades.

Aramark secured the contract with WMF through a request-for-proposal procedure where, “Experience, pricing, references, and ability to deliver goods and/or services are considered in the selection process.”

In an email to Billy Penn, Aramark Spokesperson David Freireich said, “We are a leader in the customer service and hospitality sector and we’re committed to working with our partners, employees and communities to deliver experiences that positively impact those we serve.”

Some of the proceeds from the WMF merchandise will go toward the $45 million meeting costs, but an undisclosed percentage will go to Aramark.

 

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