By Sarah Nicell || News Editor
Nationally, a significant increase in prices across a wide range of products—most notably fuel and food—has left Americans with questions. Inflation is harming most communities internationally… and unfortunately, despite its small scale, Franklin & Marshall College cannot escape the influence of financial hardship. Most noticeably, the college’s primary food service provider—Sodexo—has suffered its fair share of inflation difficulties despite the prominence of its name.
“Inflation is such a big thing right now,” says Michael Baker, F&M’s Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services. “Impacting everything from gas, to oil, to food pricing.”
As a result of inflation, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) food price index has seen massive increases compared to last year. For reference, in August 2022, the index was 10.1 points, or 7.9 percent, above its value in August 2021. This has resulted in an uptick in prices for food products across the board, but at F&M, cash operations are most affected.
In spring 2022, the value of a meal swipe at the college was marked at 5 dollars at all locations, aside from Blue Line, which valued a meal swipe at 6 dollars due to heightened prices. In response to the economic period, Franklin & Marshall increased the value of a meal swipe to 6 dollars at all locations, a change that is imperceptible to students due to the colloquialism of the term “meal swipe” or “dip deal” (1 meal swipe is equal to 1 meal… that’s it). Meal plan users who visit the dining hall swipe just as easily as they did in previous years, with the meal swipe’s value having no impact on use.
Things get tricky, though, when students consider locations like Blue Line—an “off-the-street” vendor and cash operation—or Mein Bowl—which is under contract with Sodexo and doubles as a cash operation (comparable to a Starbucks operating on college grounds). Inflation is going to cause prices to increase, and one meal swipe can only cover 6 dollars of the total cost of the meal. For instance, if Blue Line mac and cheese costs 8 dollars, students may use a meal swipe to cover 6 of the 8 dollars, but flex dollars, an additional meal swipe, cash, or credit/debit will be required to complete the purchase. For those nervous to be charged for an extra meal swipe, make sure to specify to the employee on register what form of payment will complete the order to avoid miscommunication.
Even with the cost-effectiveness of the dining hall in comparison to cash operations on campus, students seem to be coming to the dining hall at the same rate as previous semesters. If anything, the main reason dining hall activity has picked up at all is due to increased willingness to eat communally as we emerge from the pandemic. Even still, the dining hall continues to be impacted by COVID-19, as employees work to prepare “rest and recovery” meals for pickup for positive students in self-isolation. Despite the diligent efforts of Sodexo workers, only about 50 percent of students in isolation actually come to pick up the food that they ordered for themselves.
Another culprit of price changes is product shortages, a factor completely out of Sodexo’s control. Certain foods, particularly meats and grains, have been especially difficult to secure in recent months, and oftentimes the transportation of said products through Amtrak is delayed due to labor shortages.
“We try to adjust some recipes to ease the pain,” says Drew Niemann, the General Manager of Dining Services. “But the reality is that [students] want hamburgers… we need ground beef. There are only so many things we can do without impacting quality.”
“Proteins, specifically beef, have seen demand destruction,” explains David Kourie, Chief Procurement Officer of Sodexo, as part of the company’s monthly inflation watch presentation, which Michael finds beneficial. “And higher number of cattle going to harvest due to the high heat across the mid-part of the country.
“And labor,” Drew adds on the topic of financial stress.
Sodexo staffing is another challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant losses in active employees, and labor is costly. It is important to note that a job with Sodexo offers a starting pay of 15 dollars per hour, a wage significantly higher than Pennsylvania’s measly 7.25 dollar minimum wage. With a current total of 10 returning and 8 new student workers, Sodexo continues its search for undergraduate employees and is currently taking applications. Because Sodexo is an international company and not affiliated with the college, work-study is irrelevant to this opportunity.
Despite the extensive havoc that inflation has caused, Sodexo has worked hard to ensure the execution of thorough damage control.
“Because Sodexo is so big globally, we have a lot of buying power,” says Drew, “which has helped us tamper down inflation more than other places.”
With 412,000 employees and 100 million daily consumers, Sodexo’s reach is broad. Employed in 56 different countries, it makes sense that F&M’s division of the company finds ways to partner with large companies, utilize new and exciting innovations (like the Everyday App and Kiwibots… see Part II of the dining article series next week for more information), and push through a period of economic instability.
In response to the question of whether inflation issues will come to an end any time soon, Michael and Drew do not seem optimistic (and, to be fair, nor does the rest of the world).
“Everything is just so expensive,” Michael explains. That, if anything, is a declaration with which we all may empathize, Sodexo opinions aside.
Sarah Nicell is a junior and the News Editor for The College Reporter. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org.