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Expired food given to prisons

Sent by state’s Education Dept.; follows outcry over student fare

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 12, 2011

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The state Department of Education recently donated thousands of cases of out-of-date food from the school lunch program to state prisons and a county jail, documents show.

The food — more than 11,000 cases of cheese, blueberries, frozen chicken, and other goods — was offered free of charge to kitchens that serve inmates, as education officials removed old products from warehouses that serve schools across Massachusetts. The state had been reviewing its inventory after controversy erupted last month when expired food was discovered in Boston school cafeterias.

The donations to prison facilities, shown in documents obtained by the Globe under the state’s public records law, underscore the breadth of the problem with out-of-date food in the federal school lunch program.

Prison officials defended their cafeterias, while an inmate advocate shuddered at the notion that food unfit for children could be served in jail.

US Department of Agriculture guidelines say that food properly stored or frozen can remain safe after expiration dates, but it loses nutritional value and taste.

The bulk of the old food went to state prisons in Bridgewater, the documents show. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction said yesterday that most of the food, including nearly 2,000 cases of cheddar cheese, was thrown out.

Prisons rejected other out-of-date food and refused to pick up the items — including 481 cases of frozen chicken and six cases of frozen beef patties — from the warehouses, said Diane Wiffin, director of public affairs.

A spokesman for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department said yesterday that it had been longstanding practice to serve food in that jail from the school lunch program that was beyond its best-if-eaten-by date, but not rotten. Hampden County jail, which houses about 1,600 inmates, accepted 700 cases of white cheddar cheese last Thursday that had best-by dates of Dec. 10, 2010, and March 14, 2011, the documents show.

“It’s been a good way to serve good food very frugally in terms of the budget,’’ said spokesman Richard McCarthy, relaying a conversation he had yesterday with the jail’s food-service director. “It’s not rancid food. It’s not spoiled food.’’

But Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, chafed at the use by jails and prisons of out-of-date food that may be lacking in nutritional value, when many inmates do not have other sources of nourishment.

“I think it’s disgusting,’’ said Walker. “My clients are all too aware that they are on the bottom of the pecking order, but to get food that is unfit for schoolchildren to consume should make it unfit for any human being to consume.’’

The USDA’s school lunch program accounts for about 15 percent of the food served in school cafeterias in Massachusetts. The food comes from the federal government, but the program is administered by the state. Massachusetts has four regional warehouses that store and distribute food to all school districts in the state.

Food beyond “best-if-used-by’’ dates that is deemed safe to consume may be donated to prisons instead of tossed out, a USDA spokesman said yesterday.

The state Department of Education has donated limited amounts of food to prison facilities for several years, typically at the end of the school year or over the summer. The Hampden County jail, in southwestern Massachusetts, received more than 600 cases of flour in 2008, 79 cases of vegetable oil in 2010, and 40 cases of whole-grain rotini pasta, records show. In 2009, the Worcester County sheriff accepted 20,000 pounds of frozen chicken.

But on March 2, Boston city councilor John R. Connolly discovered expired supplies in four school cafeterias and ignited a scare over out-of-date food. Boston school officials threw out 204 cases of food they pulled out of schools across the city. Thousands more sit in a warehouse in Wilmington.

That discovery unleashed a flood of food donations to prisons, records show. On March 15, more than 4,000 cases of food were offered to prisons in Walpole and Bridgewater. Two days later, the state offered the same prisons another 2,362 cases. Thousands more followed March 22, March 31, and April 5.

“We were at the warehouses looking at dates on product,’’ JC Considine, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in e-mail. “We wanted to be proactive and move product out and see where it could be readily used.’’

Schools have shifted to healthier menus, Considine said, cutting back on fatty items such as pizza, leaving the state with a glut of cheese. Other cafeterias have cut back on baking programs because of budget cuts, creating an abundance of unused flour, he said.

Some food can be kept past its expiration or best-if-eaten-by date if stored properly, Considine said, citing state guidelines. However, much of the food had been frozen or stored longer than USDA regulations recommend.

A majority of the donated food, but not all, was already out of date, the records show. Prison facilities had to pick up the items at the warehouses. A substantial portion — more than 5,000 cases earmarked for state prisons, including frozen chicken and beef patties — remain at the warehouse in Wilmington. The state Department of Correction has refused to accept the food, Wiffin said.

Blueberries were the only food that state prisons served that had been kept past best-if-eaten-by dates, Wiffin said. The state prison system serves 33,000 meals a day at a cost of roughly $1 per meal, she said, but all ingredients are scrutinized.

“If the food passes inspection, we incorporate it into our menu,’’ she said. “Using the school surplus food saves taxpayer dollars. We use blueberries, walnuts, flour, brown rice, and beans. Any food that doesn’t meet our specifications is disposed of. We do not serve inmates food past its prime.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.