In April 2015, three AVI Foodsystems employees started taking pictures of expired food in Peirce’s downstairs cooler. These workers, who spoke to the Collegian anonymously out of fear of losing their jobs, said chefs forced them to serve the food, and threatened to write them up for “insubordination” if they refused.
“There’s been food that they have served that is outdated,” a cook, who has been working in Peirce for 16 years, said. “Food that we have refused to serve and have been told that we have to serve.”
An employee who has been working in Peirce for 30 years sent these photos to Fred Linger, the College’s manager of business services, last year. The employee also sent the pictures to Qossay Alsattari ’16, who grew concerned with working conditions in Peirce during his junior year after developing a relationship with some employees. Six workers sent Alsattari written complaints about working in Peirce under Executive Chef Meagan Stewart, two of which claimed management forced them to serve food past its expiration date.
Alsattari arranged a meeting with President Sean Decatur, who directed him to meet with Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman and Linger on May 5, 2015. Linger said the main problem was the disorganization of the cooler, which led to an accumulation of expired food. He said that, despite employee claims, the chefs did not force the workers to serve the food, but rather that the disorderly state of the cooler was causing confusion among the cooks. After the meeting, Linger told employees to throw out expired food immediately if they saw it in the future.
But the three employees who took photos last year, and five other cooks who also spoke to the Collegian anonymously, said while the situation has improved since last year’s meeting, chefs also occasionally still tell them to serve expired food. These workers said because there is so much pressure to prepare food on time, the chefs also sometimes tell them to pull food from the ovens even when they feel it has not cooked for long enough.
“I was told the one time that, ‘If you want to own your own restaurant, then you can decide what can be served and what can’t be served,’” said the cook who’s been working in Peirce for 16 years. “I wouldn’t let them eat some of that food,” she said, referring to students.
On Feb. 10 of this year, one worker said the cooks served soba noodles on the fusion line that had been prepared more than seven days before. According to Ohio Department of Health (ODH) regulations, after food is prepared, kitchens must throw the food out after seven days have passed.
Some AVI workers said they wished to remain completely anonymous because they were afraid the managers would look up the number of years they had been working at Peirce, and find reasons to write them up as “punishment” for speaking to the Collegian.
Stewart and Novak repeatedly denied all claims AVI had served expired food. Stewart said she remembered the situation involving the soba noodles specifically, and that the issue arose because a worker labeled the pasta with the wrong “use by” date.
Stewart said she and the other chefs take food preparation seriously and would never force their employees to serve out-of-date food or pull food out of the oven prematurely, especially because of the risk it could pose to students.
“That absolutely does not happen,” Stewart said. “There have been times when something has been on the date that is supposed to get thrown away, and I don’t even want to take a chance.”
Stewart said the kitchen staff dates all their food and leftovers so they can make sure they are not serving students meals that do not meet proper health standards. She said it is her top priority to make sure students are safe, and that she does not mind throwing away a product if it’s past its expiration date.
“I don’t want to take a chance, because the students’ health is way more important than ‘x’ amount of money,” Stewart said. “Because, heaven forbid, somebody got sick and died, or something happened.”
Stewart and Novak said workers occasionally get the expiration date and the “sell by” date confused, which leads to misunderstandings. In Peirce, the responsibility to serve proper food and throw away food in the freezer that is out of date falls not only on the lead chefs, but also on the cooks, according to Stewart.
But one employee, who has been working in Peirce for just over a year, said a chef asked her to ignore the label on a bag of pasta just last week. Another AVI worker confirmed this account.
“I took the pasta to him and said, ‘This is outdated,’ and he said, ‘Well, if that tag comes up missing, and falls off, that would be OK,’” the worker said. “And I’m like, ‘You want me to take the tag off and still serve it up?’ And he said, ‘Well, if that tag falls off somehow, it would be OK.’”
The worker said this was not the first time AVI chefs have asked her to serve expired food.
Another worker said she and the other cooks are often wary of the food Peirce serves.
“It’s sad when all of us cooks go up to eat, we have to ask what’s fresh because we don’t want to eat something that’s outdated or old,” the worker said. “Because we know what they’re doing around there.”
The employee recounted an instance last April before the meeting with Linger when she served enchilada sauce 13 days past its “use by” date, worried she would be written up for “insubordination” if she refused. The worker took photos of the sauce and claimed there was mold growing on top.
The Knox County Health Department’s most recent reports on Peirce, from Feb. 17, 2015 and Nov. 4, 2014, show no food violations.
Other employees have had a different experience working at Peirce. Teresa Ridenour, who has been working as a cook for two years, said no chef has ever told her to serve out-of-date food. Margerie Williams, who has worked in Peirce’s servery for eight months, said she has seen out-of-date food in the cooler, but has only seen the chefs ask workers to throw it away. Two other workers also said they had been told to throw away food that did not pass ODH regulations.
When the employee who has been working in Peirce for 30 years presented Linger with the issue concerning the food last year, it was not his first time dealing with a complaint from an AVI employee.
Linger said employees have come to him with a number of issues while working in Peirce, though he did not any specifics. Employees who spoke to the Collegian, however, said they had gone to Linger with complaints concerning verbal abuse from chefs and discrimination based on age or illness. Linger said he often has to remind the workers to go through their union to deal with issues like these. AVI employees are members of the union Local 84; therefore, the College cannot directly handle problems AVI employees have with management.
The worker who has been at Peirce for just over a year said it is difficult to disobey management.
“I was always told when I started there that if you tell a manager no, that you’re not listening and you can get written up for it,” the worker said. “It’s like, ‘What do I do?’”