Some food for thought
I ate lunch at a Boston public school and lived.
Yesterday, at immense personal risk, I went to the gleaming cafeteria at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, where lunch ladies spooned spaghetti bolognese and salad onto trays.
This was one of several kitchens to which Councilor John Connolly paid surprise visits earlier this month, finding in freezers food that was well past its expiration and best-by dates.
That unleashed a giant brouhaha and the removal of the schools’ longtime food director. Officials have pulled 280 cases of old food from 40 of the city’s 46 school kitchens. Blech.
I ate the spaghetti anyway.
But hold your awe. I’m not as courageous as I seem. One look in my freezer will tell you I’m no strict constructionist when it comes to best-by dates (Though I don’t go as far as my activist mother, who sometimes carries her “the date is just a suggestion’’ position to lengths that cannot be stomached). And nobody is saying the outdated school food would make kids sick.
Still, the controversy is a big deal, in ways that go beyond nutritionless cheese and flavorless beef. The aged food is easily dumped. It’s going to be harder to dispose of the bigger problems revealed this week: The Boston schools food system is wasting food and money and hasn’t been using a centralized system to track and order food electronically — and this despite an internal 2004 report that identified these problems and urged major reforms.
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson assured parents in a letter that the food their kids are eating is safe, that the department has been working for a year to improve the way it orders and stores food, and that a better tracking system is on the way.
But clearly, there are still problems. Which makes you wonder: If the schools can’t get food services running smoothly, how are they going to accomplish really important and far more difficult things like, say, closing the achievement gap? Seeing the schools fail in one area makes it harder to trust them in others.
That mistrust was plain in the cafeteria yesterday. Sitting with some eighth-graders, I heard gripes about the food you might hear anywhere — that it’s “nasty,’’ or “tastes like nothing.’’ But some of these students also take the food controversy personally, convinced kids from middle-class neighborhoods wouldn’t face it.
“They treated us like trash,’’ said Deja Harrison. “Why would they serve us food they wouldn’t serve their own kids?’’
Though it’s unclear if any of the old food made it onto trays, Harrison and her friends didn’t eat at school for a few days after Connolly’s revelations.
Orchard Gardens is one of the few schools in the state where every student is poor enough to qualify for a free breakfast and almost all qualify for a free lunch. If they don’t eat good food at school, many students don’t eat good food anywhere.
The students in this underperforming school need their cafeteria meals as much as they need innovative new principal Andrew Bott and longer days. Poor nutrition affects not just their health but also their ability to concentrate and learn.
School officials are mortified that kids like these, who desperately need to eat at school, aren’t doing so because of the controversy.
Cafeteria manager Kathy Carney said her customers are taking 25 percent fewer breakfasts and 12 percent fewer lunches.
“Is this what we want?’’ she said, welling up. “It’s heartbreaking.’’
Connolly’s revelations should give families pause about how the schools are run, but it shouldn’t turn them off the food, which remains safe — and vital to kids’ success.
And that spaghetti?
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.