School nutrition director ousted

More food found to be out of date; Councilor charges mismanagement

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / March 22, 2011

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The Boston public schools ousted their longtime director of food and nutrition services yesterday after finding 280 cases of out-of-date food in 40 cafeterias amid allegations from a city councilor of systemic mismanagement and widespread waste.

School officials said they have set aside 3,049 more cases of food, worth roughly $107,000, in a privately operated supply warehouse in Wilmington because records do not readily show expiration dates or “best-if-used-by’’ dates. Officials are peeling away plastic packaging on the pallets, looking for dates or other clues to how long the food has been in storage.

US Department of Agriculture guidelines say that properly frozen food can remain safe after expiration dates, but that it can deteriorate in taste and nutritional value. A USDA spokeswoman said yesterday that the department urges food service officials to “err on the side of caution,’’ especially when serving children.

Deputy School Superintendent Michael J. Goar acknowledged problems in Boston’s food management yesterday, saying, “This clearly highlights that we need to do a better job with inventory control, as well as better menu planning.’’

Goar said the discoveries do not necessarily mean that students have been served food that has been in storage past expiration dates.

“Just because you have [out of date food], does not mean you are going to use it,’’ he said. “I don’t want people to say there is food from 2008 being used to feed our kids. That is far from the truth.’’

But Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, who found out-of-date food in freezers at four school cafeterias in surprise visits earlier this month, said he has found documents that suggest high schools served frozen grilled egg patties in January that had been bought during the 2008-2009 school year. The School Department disputed Connolly’s interpretation of the documents, but officials acknowledged that there is no way to accurately determine the age of food from their invoices. The same records appear to show that the department routinely ordered food items, such as chicken patties, that it already had in abundance in storage, Connolly said.

The warehouse, Wilmington Cold Storage, charged the city more than $73,000 last year for storage and other services. School officials are responsible for ordering food stored there.

“Poor inventory management led to Boston public schools paying to store food and serving expired food to our students,’’ Connolly said yesterday as he and his staff examined five boxes of menus, inventories, and other documents from the department. “It’s totally unacceptable.’’

Connolly will kick off the first of two public hearings today at 11 a.m. at City Hall to examine the management of the cafeteria system and the nutritional value of food frozen past its best-by date. The second will be held Thursday evening at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, where parents and students are encouraged to offer testimony.

The Boston schools’ food system feeds about 58,000 breakfasts, lunches, and snacks each day, predominantly to children from low-income backgrounds. Forty-six schools have full kitchens, and 88 schools use warming kitchens, serving meals pre-made by a private company. For some students, the food from the school cafeteria may be the most nutritious meal they eat all day.

While acknowledging problems with inventory, school officials defended yesterday the progress they have made over the past several years to improve food service, cutting costs, increasing student participation, and putting healthier food on plates. The food and nutrition director, Helen Mont-Ferguson, was reassigned yesterday within the department as the city launches a national search for her replacement, Goar said.

“It’s time for us to take a different direction in terms of leadership,’’ Goar said.

Some of the old food, school officials said, arrived out of date from the Department of Agriculture, which has provided food for school lunches since 1946.

USDA officials said yesterday they were not aware of any shipments of out-of-date food. “It’s my understanding that when the product was delivered from the USDA . . . it was not expired,’’ said agency spokeswoman, Jean Daniel. “Once in a great while this comes up, and it’s usually an inventory control issue.’’

The federal government does not have a requirement that all food be stamped with expiration dates, and indications of age can vary widely, which Boston school officials said creates confusion. Some food items have a packaged-on date, while others may have a best-by date, expiration date, or no date at all.

“The dates, they are a tool; they are not the end-all,’’ said Shamil Mohammed, deputy director of food and nutrition services, who will take over for Mont-Ferguson while a permanent replacement is sought. “They are a tool that indicates expiration.’’

The school system has changed its policy so that all out-of-date food will be immediately discarded, officials said. The department is revamping its method for ordering food to indicate use-by dates on invoices. And it is planning to dedicate a department employee to tracking inventory in the warehouse.

After Connolly launched his surprise inspections, school officials collected out-of-date food at 40 of the full-kitchen cafeterias. The haul totaled 280 cases, which officials said, represented just a fraction of the inventory.

A new director of food and nutrition will give the school system another opportunity to push for changes in its cafeterias, which are a challenge for most older urban school districts.

“Most of them are really old and built in the times when students walked home for lunch,’’ said Rochelle Davis, president of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign. “A lot of those got equipment at a time when a lot of food was being fried. A lot of schools used stimulus money to put in steamers.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at