Verdict: In Maine, Big Food Service wins again

University of Maine campus, where Sodexo provides food services

University of Maine

University of Maine campus, where Sodexo provides food services

University of Maine

Catering giant Sodexo lands a $12.5-million-dollar campus dining contract; local food co-op doesn’t

The University of Maine System announced in a press release on Tuesday it will award its dining hall, retail and food catering services contract for six of the seven UMS campuses to France-based food service provider Sodexo. The contract award process had attracted wide attention in the food community after a proposal put together by a coalition of Maine food producers was a finalist for the contract, along with Sodexo and current contract holder Aramark. (Read The New Food Economy’s coverage of the story here.)

The Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, the nation’s first food services co-op, was inspired to make a play for the contract after the university committed itself to purchasing 20 percent of its food locally by 2020. The coalition upped the ante—promising to achieve 20 percent local sourcing in its first year. That promise wasn’t enough to win the contract, but it was apparently enough to encourage Sodexo to take a more aggressive approach to local sourcing than it had been expected to take.

According to a press release issued by UMS, “Sodexo committed to achieving the 20% local food target in year one of the contract and has pledged to source between 25% and 30% of the food it serves locally by the year 2020.”

2015.09.15.BroadturnFarm.22Nathan Broaddus

“The Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative didn’t win the bid but they challenged everyone bidding on the contract to commit to 20 percent local food. So they deserve a lot of credit for making that local food commitment a part of this deal,” says Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has long supported Maine farmers.

Recently, Sodexo has started to pivot toward shorter supply chains and greater transparency. In 2014, it struck an agreement with the state of Vermont to increase local food purchasing; made a commitment to serve 20 percent “real” food nationwide (as defined by the Real Food Challenge); and promised, as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, to spend $1 billion on products and services from small-to-medium sized businesses by 2017.

Last month it announced the hiring of a director for its Maine Course Program, a statewide initiative to prioritize serving locally and sustainably harvested food at client sites throughout Maine.

But local wasn’t the only factor that influenced the decision. In addition to promising to maintain or reduce current costs, and make efforts to retain current Aramark staff, Sodexo committed to pumping a good amount of money back into UMS in the form of capital investments.

Capital_investments_A_little_cash_on_the_side (3)

Proposals were evaluated using a 100-point scoring system. Impact on the state of Maine and organizational qualifications, for instance, counted for fewer points than plans for each campus’s dining operations and the bidders’ “financial responses”, which counted for 60 combined points.

Contract expirations give universities the opportunity to attract capital investments and direct them toward renovations or expansions. Those capital investments can be a make-or-break part of the deal.

Over the course of ten years, Sodexo will spend up to $14 million on dining-related infrastructure, more than 10 percent of the overall worth of its $12.5 million annual contract. According to the release, the money will go toward improvements in “campus facilities, catering, internships and other activities aimed at having an excellent dining experience.” That’s an enticement Maine Farm & Sea simply couldn’t match.

Maine Farm & Sea’s “financial response” plan was focused on reinvestment rather than an up-front influx of capital. “Our package was basically to get off the ground in year one,” says Ron Adams, the co-op’s secretary. “And year two we said we would be reinvesting our profits back into the operation, rather than having that as a line charge that goes back to the students, which is typically where that $14 million would be paid back.”

Sodexo will take over from Aramark starting on July 1, 2016. Maine Farm & Sea says it is looking for ways to work with the university system, and it is pursuing other opportunities with Maine institutions.


Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.