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Boston students, parents sound off over expired food

Many concerned with nutritional value and quality

Eshe Shirley (left), a junior at Boston Latin School, talked about expired food yesterday as Danielle Hedgepath listened. Eshe Shirley (left), a junior at Boston Latin School, talked about expired food yesterday as Danielle Hedgepath listened. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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Parents and students got their chance to speak out last night on the recent revelations about expired food appearing in Boston public schools.

About 50 people attended Councilor at Large John R. Connolly’s second hearing on the subject of outdated food in the schools, held at The Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall. The groups were nearly unanimous in voicing their concerns over the quality and nutritional value of food being served. They were also upset about the possibility of food being past its “best by’’ dates.

“They come home complaining,’’ Danielle Hedgepath said of her five children, who attend elementary, middle, and high schools.

Hedgepath said that even with all the recent attention to food in schools, one of her children said they were served a moldy muffin on Monday.

The School Department has acknowledged that food has been kept well past expiration dates, elevating concerns over safety, along with the nutritional value, for thousands of local children. Earlier this month, Connolly made surprise inspections of four school kitchens and found food dating back more than one year.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson circulated a letter to parents Wednesday reiterating that food is safe in the schools, after one cafeteria manager reported a 25 percent drop in students showing up for free breakfast.

“One student refused to eat lunch because she heard it might be dangerous,’’ the letter said. “I am writing to personally assure you that the food we serve to your children is safe and healthy.’’

For Hedgepath and others, last night was an opportunity for the public to enter the debate between a crusading Connolly and school officials, who have been forced to defend their food service.

Hedgepath said her children “have opted to stop eating the food that is served, and now the concentration is on hunger, as opposed to the MCAS testing, which was this week, as well.’’

Connolly encouraged parents to speak openly about the food their children were consuming at school.

“We cannot find real solutions if we are not listening to students and parents,’’ Connolly said, “real, long-term solutions to ensure that our children are receiving healthy and nutritious meals at every school.’’

School officials have pointed to a memo from the US Department of Agriculture that described expiration and use-by dates as recommendations, not requirements.

Johnson said Wednesday at a School Committee meeting that schools were not serving any food that officials “wouldn’t serve to our own families.’’ Johnson also said the expired food in question has not been served to students.

But the councilors and school officials, including much of the School Committee, saw a different perspective last night.

“I personally find something in my freezer past the expiration date, regardless of the USDA’s guidelines, I toss it, and I expect no less from Boston public schools,’’ Hedgepath said.

But beyond the obvious disapproval of expired food, some students used the hearing as an opportunity to put the spotlight on the general issue of nutrition in the schools, including the lack of fruits and vegetables.

Eshe Shirley — who helps run an environmental club at Boston Latin School, where she is a junior — said the club raised a popular vegetable garden to teach students the importance of eating local produce.

Shirley said students would eat healthy foods if they were an option.

“I wanted to suggest that the conversation not stop at how old food is,’’ she said. “This moment provides a valuable opportunity to expand the food conversation. Breakfasts and lunches can change a kid’s life.

“Type 2 diabetes is on the rise. Obesity is on the rise, and lots of kids in the Boston public schools get their meals from the schools. Clearly something needs to be done.’’

That seemed to resonate with the politicians, including one newcomer.

“I was very impressed by her and I totally agree,’’ said Tito Jackson, who attended the hearing last night and will be sworn in Saturday as the new District 7 city councilor.

“The highest quality food will help students have the energy that they need to be successful.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.