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Expired school food prompts outrage

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Earlier this month, City Councilor At-Large John Connolly discovered expired food in several Boston Public Schools cafeterias. In one kitchen, he found cheese a year past its expiration date, and in another, he found frozen beef from November 2009.

Shocked and appalled by the quality of food being served to the city’s children, Connolly launched an investigation of BPS food services.

After presenting his findings at a city council meeting last week, Connolly held another meeting for students and parents to sound off about their experiences with the district’s school food.

“Expired food would never had made its way into our cafeterias, and ultimately to our children, if Boston Public Schools operated in a fully transparent and accountable manner,” Connolly said to open the meeting. “Instead, the management of the Food and Nutrition Services department failed our children, failed our parents, our teachers, our principals and our cafeteria workers.”

 Christina Tau, a high school student in the district, qualifies for free lunch and breakfast, and always eats her meals at school to help her family save money. “It’s not something you want to eat,” she said of the meals she receives. When she heard about the expired food in BPS cafeterias, she “wasn’t that alarmed.” “It’s sad because I feel like I don’t expect that much anyway,” she said.

City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley also spoke at the hearing, and asked Tau what she and her classmates would eat if they didn’t like what was served at school. Tau responded simply, “we have not eaten.”

Much of the food used to make school meals comes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s commodity food program, which provides subsidized food items in bulk. These products are stored remotely at a warehouse in Wilmington, Mass. until use, but the district’s mismanagement of inventory and finances has led to lots of expired food going unnoticed.

When Connolly’s findings came to light, BPS threw away 3,329 cases of bad food from schools and storage  —  a value of approximately $114,000.

But for Danielle Hedgepeth, mother of five students in BPS schools, these measures still haven’t resolved the district’s food issues. Her kids “come home constantly complaining about the taste,” she explained. “They say that the food is horrible.”

As recently as March 21, well after BPS claimed to rid its schools of old food, Hedgepeth’s children found mold on their muffins. “This pattern is so recurring that they’ve actually stopped eating food they’re being served,” she continued. “Now the concentration is on being hungry as opposed to in-house testing.”

Immediately following Councilor Connolly’s findings, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson assured the community that “the food we serve to your children is safe and healthy.” A spokesperson for the Food and Nutrition Services department also provided a 2010 USDA memo to back this claim.

“Generally ‘expiration’ dates and ‘use-by’ dates are the last dates that the manufacturer recommends a food item be consumed to ensure peak quality and nutrient retention,” the memo says. “However, there is no regulation requiring that manufacturers mark their products with such dates.”

For Hedgepeth, this isn’t good enough. “If I personally find something in my freezer past the expiration date, regardless of USDA guidelines, I toss it, and I expect no less from Boston Public Schools,” she said.

Parents and students also voiced concerns over the nutrition of school food. Anne White, a parent of two children in BPS, was horrified to learn that her daughter was served Cookie Crisp for breakfast one day, with no healthier option available. “Why should we give a single penny to cookies for breakfast?” she exclaimed.

Students took aim against the common myth that young people only want junk food  —  and will never eat healthy food. Alana Huntsburger, a student at Brighton High School, explained that kids resort to junk food only when they don’t like the food served to them in school.

Esha Sherley, a student at Boston Latin School, agreed. Students at her school organized to grow a garden on campus and set up a salad bar in their cafeteria. Soon, “there were more people lining up for the salad than there were for the cupcakes,” she said.

Daniel Nicklas, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and the father to a BPS student, also testified to the importance of nutritious school meals.     School meals account for up to 50 percent of most children’s daily nutrition, and up to 100 percent for poor children dependent on the School Lunch and Breakfast programs, he explained.

“In my opinion, because the Boston Public Schools provide such a large portion of our children’s nutrition, it is imperative that it shows leadership in establishing the highest standard of nutritious food.”

Money was another concern for parents. Linda Barrels fought BPS earlier this year to keep her child’s school open in the wake of massive closings and mergers. While she was told “to look for every single penny to keep the schools open,” the district was wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars letting food go bad  —  a situation she said is “not acceptable.”

 According to Connolly’s findings, the Food and Nutrition Services department at BPS has been plagued by inventory mismanagement problems for nearly a year. The district spends close to $75,000 annually on storage fees in Wilmington, much of this to house expired food.

Three BPS officials also attended the hearing, but offered few apologies or explanations. Jill Carter, executive director of the health and wellness department, spoke at length about the district’s nutritional standards, but failed to acknowledge the moldy muffins Hedgepeth’s children received.

Interim Director of the Food and Nutrition Services department Shamil Mohammed, however, told parents and students, “We heard loud and clearly.” Stressing that he, too, grew up on school lunches, he said, “When I see those kids, I know what they’re going through, because I’ve been there.”