Food Service Must Move Forward
Last spring the Department of Housing and Food Services announced a one-year extension of Aramark's food service contract with MIT. The justification offered at the time was that HFS was not prepared to start the bidding process. Now, HFS has announced that Aramark's contract will likely be extended yet another year, making for a cumulative two-year extension of Aramark's original five-year contract. These piecemeal extensions have been detrimental to the MIT community and food service customers in particular.
Each time HFS has extended the Aramark contract, they have offered the explanation that more time was needed to get the bidding process underway. First the vice president of operations had to set up a process for reviewing contracts and overseeing food services - namely, the nascent dining services review group. Then there was the time-consuming process of actually going out to bid. As it turns out, HFS hasn't even started soliciting bids for the MIT contract.
In addition to the delays, there has been essentially no discussion of what for many is the central issue of the Aramark dilemma: competition. Many students believe that MIT should at least experiment with allowing multiple vendors into the MIT market. Instead of fleshing out this idea, however, HFS appears to have concentrated its attention on providing better oversight of Aramark's operations.
The fact remains that HFS had plenty of time - five full years - to set up a process and go out to bid. During those five years, Aramark faced mounting complaints about the quality of food and services they provide. Moreover, Aramark has been almost totally unresponsive to student leaders working to improve food service in dormitories. HFS lamely allowed the contract to run out without so much as starting the bidding process.
There is a distinct possibility that HFS has simply decided to cave to Aramark propaganda according to which MIT's market is too small for any contractor to serve well. According to this view, the complaints people have now would apply equally to any other food service provider.
At this rate, it seems likely that Aramark will continue to manage food services at MIT well into the next century. This situation could have been avoided if HFS had devoted adequate attention to the problem earlier. There is no good reason why the bidding process could not have started on time, with student input. The dining services group must act now to ensure that we are not listening to an explanation for another one-year extension next year at this time.