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Monday, May 10, 2021

UF, the prison-industrial complex, and you: Boycott today, but what else can you do?

Fight for food justice and against the prison-industrial complex

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“Boycott the Reitz! Protect workers’ rights!” 

So goes a slogan of the current student-led efforts to boycott the Reitz Union until the University of Florida (UF) meets two core demands centering around food justice and severing more ties with the prison-industrial complex. 

The Alligator previously reported that Goddsville Dream Defenders, UF NAACP, the UF Black Student Union, and the Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS) at UF have circulated these demands via a letter and email campaign to UF admins, social media, and campus outreach efforts. 

These organizations, along with 13 more co-signing student organizations, are calling on students and community members to monetarily boycott the Reitz Union to pressure UF to be a more just institution. These demands and issues may be new to many current students, but they have deep histories within two interrelated struggles on UF’s campus: one towards food justice and the other away from the prison-industrial complex at UF. 

Fight for food justice

Aramark, which UF has continuously contracted with as its food service provider since 1995, is a known human-rights abuser: they have exploited enslaved prison laborers and operate in more than 600 prisons that collectively incarcerate 300,000 people. Back on UF’s campus, they have mistreated student employees with low pay and inflexible hours. Furthermore, a 2019 survey found that 81% of students with residential meal plans were dissatisfied with the quality of food. Aramark abuses human rights and cuts corners to produce its product, and that resulting product is lackluster.

Student and community resistance to Aramark is not new. Many UF students have long been opposed to Aramark -- as this 2008 article from The Fine Print makes clear. However, the unique opportunity in front of current students is historic. 

Since UF first contracted Aramark more than 26 years ago, the contract was renewed without a legitimate Invitation to Negotiate being sent out to competitors and a competitive bid process will be conducted this spring. This means that current efforts, like the ongoing boycott, have a real chance to influence what goes into UF’s next food-service provider contract and ensure it is more equitable and sustainable.

These efforts against Aramark are also part of a broader trajectory of the fight for food justice at UF. Other student and community efforts have included the Boot the Braids campaign and the Food Justice League which have continuously fought for farmworkers’ and food service workers’ rights, as well as demanded accountability from vendors to maintain fair and sustainable practices. 

Boycott today; continue the fight for food justice tomorrow. 

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Fight against the prison-industrial complex 

Aramark and UF’s relationship is the perfect case study to understand just how linked the struggles for food justice and against the prison-industrial complex (PIC) are. As stated above, Aramark works in hundreds of prisons and, like UF did for many years, abuses enslaved prison labor. Here we must also consider the broader Gainesville and Alachua County context. 

In 2018, following years of grassroots organizing -- both by incarcerated people themselves and organizations such as Florida Prisoner Solidarity (formerly Gainesville Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee) -- both the city and the county stopped their uses of enslaved prison labor. 

UF, however, did not, and from 2015-2019 alone, the university exploited over 150,000 hours of such labor. 

One of the biggest student groups working against the PIC has been Divest UF, which has pushed for food and climate justice as well. It was very active for several years, and as its actions became more infrequent, CAPS coalesced in June of 2020. 

CAPS further unified student and community groups that already worked against the PIC, brought additional student organizations into these efforts and launched a public pressure campaign against UF demanding them to immediately terminate their prison slavery contracts. 

Following phone zaps, email campaigns, articles in local media and a meeting with UF admins, the university capitulated at the end of September 2020. This was a significant victory for students, the Gainesville community, and incarcerated people -- but it is only one victory towards disentangling UF from the PIC. 

Where do current students fit in?

We hope that the above sections make clear that current students are part of a larger trajectory at UF. These struggles precede us. It is up to you to decide where you position yourself within them. 

You are currently in a prime position and moment to make great progress towards achieving food justice at UF. It is also a prime moment to further disentangle the university from prisons. So, what can you do right now? 

The best way is to participate with your wallet. Do not spend any money on food at the Reitz. Do not renew your meal plan. For a university and company that cares about profits over all else, hit them where it hurts. You should also email the university administration, share informational posts, tell your friends to join the boycott, ask your organizations to co-sign our letter and follow CAPS, Dream Defenders, UF BSU, and NAACP at UF on social media. 

For a long term impact, we call on you to join a campus or community organization that is committed to social justice. Find the organization that most aligns with your passions, and get to work making this university and community a better place. 

The Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS) at UF is a coalition of student and community organizations and individuals actively organizing to abolish prison slavery. 


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