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Does Bartol use laxatives?

Comm 260: Journalism
Katie Poole
Students identify a substantive issue, develop a hypothesis, research its viability, and then carry out an extensive investigation, using both human and documentary sources to produce a report.

The main criteria are:

  • a serious subject
  • extensive research into a wide range of appropriate sources
  • difficulty in uncovering the truth
  • a balanced mix of information, narrative and analysis
  • clearly articulated findings drawn from the research (whether or not they sustain the initial hypothesis)
  • Stories are constructed in a format that borrows from the conventions of both hard news (detailed information) and feature writing (vivid description and compelling narrative), beginning with either a summary lead based upon the findings or an anecdotal lead that carries the reader to the subject of the piece. Students follow Associated Press style and are asked to produce error-free copy for publication in campus or other newspapers.

Kathleen McKendry, a junior at Simmons College, said she heard the rumor that college cafeterias put laxatives in the food before she even went to college. Emily Mills, a sophomore at Simmons, said she first heard the rumor about a month ago.

"When I got to college, and I saw how everyone's bodies were reacting to the food, I began to believe it," McKendry said. "I didn't stop eating the food because I didn't have any other choice."

"I was shocked to hear that the rumor came from multiple campuses that used Aramark," Mills said. "I went home and looked it up online and came up with a lot of hits about it. I changed which foods I ate at Bartol—I started eating raw veggies more and soup. I stopped eating the cooked vegetables and pastas."

Both students said they shared their knowledge of the rumor with their friends, asking for opinions and advice, but not getting very far. Some were convinced of it. Others were unaware of it.

"I have never heard anything like that before in my life," said Cheryl Souza-Canuel, 33, of Fall River, Mass. Souza-Canuel graduated from Bridgewater State College in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and music, and a master's in elementary education in 2003. She lived in Bridgewater State College's dormitories, ate the cafeteria food during her undergraduate years, and admitted being shocked that such a rumor existed.

An informal poll in one Simmons journalism class found that everyone present had heard the rumor.

The question is: Does Bartol use laxatives in its food?

Bartol Hall, the all-you-can-eat cafeteria on the Simmons College Residence Campus, gets its food through Aramark, a company providing services that include: facilities management, uniforms and work apparel, food service and refreshments, lodging and guest accommodations, clinical technology services, and cleanroom services, according to the company's Web site.

Aramark's publications say that it believes "in creating positive experiences that enable the people and organizations we serve to thrive" and that Aramark is dedicated to health and wellness, environmental stewardship, community involvement, and employee advocacy.

After a month-long investigation with the aide of Jeff Stone, head of dining services at Simmons College, and Kathianne Williams, a nutritionist at Simmons College, the rumor that Aramark puts laxatives in students' food has been debunked.

"I can guarantee that we do NOT put any thing into our food besides the ingredients that are called for by our recipes," Stone said in an e-mail. "There are no chemicals, supplements, or other additives added or in our recipes. I would also be happy to have you, or any other student, tour our kitchens at any time you would like, with no advance notice."

So tour the kitchen is what this reporter did.

After only thirty seconds, it was clear that Stone has taken great care in organizing his kitchen and training his staff in appropriate kitchen etiquette.

The investigation found a completely organized kitchen—cleaner than some chain restaurants kitchens)—with a well-trained staff and not a trace of laxatives.

Specific results include:

  • Separate coolers are used for dairy/tofu products and meat/vegetable products.
  • Although meat and vegetable products are in the same cooler, they are stored on opposite walls. (In the cook-to-order stations they are on separate sides of the refrigerator.)
  • Sealed covers are used on all loose products.
  • Labels are put on all products.
  • Reminders are clearly visible for staff to wash hands, keep meats and veggies separate, and other such measures
  • Sinks are designated for food preparation only.
  • Ice wells are designated for keeping veggies fresh while being prepared for student consumption at the stations and the salad bar.
  • Heat lamps are used to keep the fries warm at the grill.
  • Thermometers are prominent, and the temperatures at all the sections (coolers, ovens, stoves, and so on) are regularly checked.
  • The Health Department inspects Bartol three times a year (the visits are unscheduled, and usually happen near the beginning of each semester and end of the year). No major changes have been enforced from these inspections in recent years.
  • Bartol's food is on a five-week cycle, so menu options are changed regularly and not overused.

Stone also said that all of his products are name-brand, such as: Heinz, Tyson Chicken, French's mustard, Kenn Salad Dressing, Sid Wainer, Hood, Sisco, and Wonder Bread. Stone also buys bread from LaRanga, a local vendor.

"The food I buy is the same as in the grocery store," Stone said. "Instead of two pounds of chicken, I buy forty." He buys more because he has more mouths to feed.

From the moment the food is delivered, Stone's team double-checks the packaging and expirations dates to make sure it is safe for consumption and puts it away as soon as this is done.

Milk, on the other hand, is put away by the delivery drivers, so it stays fresh longer, he said. Bartol gets three milk deliveries a week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, even though milk is good for about two weeks. However, Bartol cycles through milk so quickly that these tri-weekly deliveries are necessary.

Stone also said that cooks only take products out as they are needed and are instructed to use the oldest food first, but only after checking the expiration dates.

The cooks are also not allowed to use products whose expiration dates have "today's date," Stone said. No matter what, that food is immediately thrown away and a fresher product is used.

As for re-use of products, laws determine what can be re-used and how often, he said. For example, today's raw products can be re-used in tomorrow's soup, but at the end of the day that soup must be tossed because products are legally only allowed to be re-used once.

If what is being re-used has been cooked, it must be cooled at the proper temperature to avoid bacteria growth. If the product is cooled and stored properly, it can be reused once. For example, today's meatloaf could be re-used in tomorrow's chili, but none of that chili could be saved at the end of the day.

As far as recipes go, all dishes are prepared fresh. Aramark does not supply pre-made dishes for the cooks at Bartol to warm up, Stone said.

The recipes themselves, however, come from different sources. For example, some are standard from Aramark. Stone said he is a trained chef and occasionally creates dishes for students; others are researched from sources such as Bon Appetite, Gourmet, and Cooking Light. What recipes are used follow student preference and product availability.

"Students come first," Stone said. "So if the students won't eat it, we won't make it." He also said that the comment cards are checked regularly, and they really take them into consideration when deciding what food to order and make.

The only other factor in deciding what to serve is the item's nutritional value. Stone said that one aspect of his job is to make sure that students are being provided the food options to create a healthy, balanced diet.

There is no evidence that Bartol uses laxatives, so where and when would a rumor like that start?

"Probably about one hundred years ago," Stone said. He speculated that when students come to college, their eating habits and routines change, and therefore so does their body. Consequently, these changes may make students blame the food for "differences" they notice.

Kathianne Williams, a nutritionist at Simmons College, said that the use of laxatives in Bartol's food would be "expensive and illegal."

Not only that, but it would be a bad idea. "The body can become dependent on them and when they are taken away, it is harder for the body to have bowel movements without them," Williams said.

"Whenever one changes eating habits, it can be challenging. A lot of students have trouble managing stress and therefore overeat or under eat. Stress can disrupt the gastrointestinal system as well," Williams said. She suggests that any student having issues with digestion see either a nutritionist or a doctor immediately.

Williams said she eats at Bartol once a week to get a better feel for the food choices so that she can better help students with questions.

"I feel good knowing that Simmons doesn't use laxatives, but sometimes the food just doesn't agree with me all that well. I still would like to know why that is, but at least we can all rest easy knowing its not laxatives, right?" McKendry said.

Although there is strong evidence that Bartol does not use laxatives in the food, the rumor is still circulating, and some students still do not fully believe it is false.

Merrill Thompson, a junior at Simmons College, now lives off-campus and no longer eats at Bartol. Shesaid she was surprised to hear that the food is, and always has been, laxativefree.

"All this time I thought Bartol used laxatives! When I was a freshman we used to joke about the ‘Bartol smell' and how it was created by ‘burning laxatives,'" Thompson said.

"I'm glad I never heard the rumor while I was still in school," Souza-Canuel said.

Mills, on the other hand, is skeptical: "I'm not quite sure if I believe it, but I am glad that Jeff went through the effort to prove that it is laxative free."