This article appeared in The Australian 10 May 2001 p12

From school lunches
to lockups

A company that prepares tuckshop food and boardroom nibbles is the target of protest over its less public operations, Elisabeth Wynhausen explains IF Frank Nolan were a sandwich, he would be processed cheese on white. Nolan is the softly spoken mouthpiece for Sodexho Food and Management Services, a fragment of Sodexho Alliance, a French-owned corporation that runs everything from tourist boats on the Seine to the private prison that opened last Saturday in Western Australia.

Sodexho Alliance owns the biggest block of shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the world's largest for-profit prison company. Because of its connection to the private prison industry there have been student protests and sit-ins at universities against Sodexho-Marriott, the arm that provides food services on American campuses.

Nolan may be a cog in the wheel of a fascinating global corporation, but he is a professional who keeps an airtight lid on his own personality. Seated at his desk in offices on the seventh floor of a modest building in Sydney's Chinatown, he answers questions about the food business by talking about systems and processes and "specialist purchasing divisions". Even the aphorisms he allows himself have been pureed in the corporate blender. "We have a paddock-to-plate mentality," he says.

The company does the catering for boardrooms and cafeterias, university colleges and boarding schools such as Knox in Sydney. If you had a sandwich when you were last at the Sydney Opera House, you've tasted the end result of Nolan's systems and processes. Since taking over the British catering company Gardner Merchant some years ago, Sodexho has provided the food for the Opera House. Of course, there's the occasional slip 'twixt paddock and lip. Only the other week the Opera House announced that by joint agreement with Sodexho, it was not renewing the contracts.

The company reaches into many other recesses of daily life in Australia. As Sodexho employees somewhere in this country are deciding what goes on the sandwiches in your child's school tuckshop, others, elsewhere, are drawing up the meal plans for a private prison in Britain or organising the catering and cleaning at RAAF bases west of Sydney.

Sodexho is now the third-largest catering company in this country, says Stephen Kelly, the managing director of Pannell Kerr Forster, a firm of accounting and business consultants. But the Sodexho name barely registers in Australia. By contrast, students in the US have mounted a year-long campaign against Sodexho-Marriott, the largest catering company in North America, organising protests and sit-ins at dozens of colleges. Last week there was even a sleep-out at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Students vowed to stay put until the university terminated its contract with Sodexho-Marriott.

With about 2 million people in prison in the US, opponents believe incarceration has become a form of "social control" used against black men. "Many see the prison issue as the civil rights struggle for our generation," Kevin Pranis of the Prison Moratorium Project told The Australian. He says the reaction against Sodexho is grounded in the recognition that private prison contractors such as CCA and Wackenhut are driving the expansion of the prison system, while running prisons in which staffing levels, rehabilitation and medical services are reduced to save money.

"Last April, 10 campuses took action. Now four of them no longer have the Sodexho-Marriott food service," Pranis says. "On campus the campaign has become the second largest issue [after the campaign against] sweatshops. Everybody knows about it now."

For the students, the campaign is part and parcel of the struggle against globalisation that provoked the May Day protests outside stock exchanges in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney last week as well as last month's demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The demonstrators maintained that under the banner of free trade, the FTAA would force the nations of the hemisphere to open everything from water and schools to healthcare to private enterprise (or face trade sanctions), further enriching corporations at the expense of poor countries.

Though often pilloried for their naivete, the coalitions of students and radicals have been most effective in the battle with Sodexho. The other week The Washington Post reported that "internet access to primary source material such as Securities and Exchange Commission documents" helped activists from one university get Sodexho-Marriott services booted off their campus.

The students were jubilant last year when Sodexho announced that it would divest its 8 per cent stake in CCA. But it hasn't yet. In the past three years, CCA shares have dropped like a stone. "In 1998 the stock was $US46. Now it's US77c a share," Pranis says. But the campaign will continue, he says, because Sodexho Alliance recently acquired the Corrections Corporation of Australia as well as a British firm, UK Detention Services.

Until last year, CCA (Australia) ran two private prisons - Borallon, outside Ipswich in Queensland and Deer Park, the Melbourne women's prison. The Victorian Government took control of Deer Park last October, citing fears for the safety and security of the prisoners and prison staff.

Meanwhile, F.J. Peach, the director-general of Queensland's Department of Corrective Services, was documenting his growing anger at CCA's handling of allegations of stolen property and misconduct at Borallon in a series of letters to the company. Before long, another firm was running the prison.

CCA has reappeared in another guise. Renamed Australian Integrated Management Services it will run Acacia, outside Perth, Western Australia's first private prison. "Sodexho is a global company that operates on the assumption that it can take over any public function and make it private," Pranis says. "Robert Stern, their general counsel, said prisons can be a business like any other."

Stern is not alone. Forget crime. Forget punishment. To those at home in the new world of outsourcing, the function of an institution is almost as interchangeable as, well, the menu. "At the end of the day, it's just a form of facility management," Kelly says.

And in that sense prisons are just the beginning. "Sodexho is going through a patch of reorganisation. Once they've consolidated I would predict their growth would be in facility management," Kelly says. "You'll see them aggressively go into aged-care facilities and medical clinics and so on. They've done it around the globe."

The company may have been booted off US campuses and barred from running prisons in two states in Australia, but blink a few times and they'll be there with open arms, ready to receive your aged parent. And Sodexho is still serving tuckshop lunches and running catering contracts in a host of public facilities.

The details remain a little fuzzy. But if Nolan doesn't give too much away, his reticence is more than shared by his rivals. The man from Eurest, the largest of the catering companies, does not make it to the telephone at all. The man from Spotless - the one-time dry cleaner - does not wish to be quoted, although he might boast that Spotless is the only Australian-owned corporation left in this league.

From one side of the country to the other, subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies are more likely than not to do the catering (not to mention the cleaning) in company lunchrooms and boardrooms, college dining halls and hospitals.

That isn't to say that the ideas for the menus are hatched in countries where they've never even heard of the Chiko Roll or that Adelaide speciality, the floater. At the Sodexho-run cafe in the NRMA building in Sydney, Pip Thompson, the operations manager for Sodexho's food services for business and industry says the food on offer may reflect the wishes of employers or employees - one reason the tiny NRMA cafe has its own barista.

But on one occasion, at least, Sodexho has introduced ideas that seemed peculiarly alien in Australia. During the Olympics, when Sodexho had a catering contract for Stadium Australia, one of its executives complained about the "unreasonable amounts of food" taken into the opening ceremony, saying people were seen with "small hampers".

At other times, however, the global corporation with its headquarters in Paris, swaddles its activities in motherhood statements that can seem a shade surreal. Check out's English language version and you will soon come across the company slogan: "How nice to be pampered from morning till night."