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Boston Officials Pledge To Improve Quality Of School Food

This article is more than 12 years old.

Boston school officials maintain that food served in city schools is safe. That's after hundreds of cases of expired food were discovered in dozens of school cafeterias.

At a testy City Council hearing Tuesday called by Boston City Councilor John Connolly, school officials acknowledged there is a problem with oversight, but said they are working to fix it.

Connolly called the hearing after he traced expired food from a Wilmington warehouse to cafeterias in Boston public schools, which serve almost 60,000 meals every day.

"Why are we paying to store food past the expiration date?" Connolly asked.

School officials repeatedly testified that the main reasons why food was used past expiration dates were sloppy inventory control and poor menu planning.

Most of Connolly's questions were directed to Shamil Mohammed. Tuesday was Mohammed's first day on the job as interim director of school food and nutritional services, after the previous director was reassigned earlier this week because of the expired food controversy.

"I think that's an issue of our menu planning," Mohammed replied to Connolly's questions. "I think we need to ensure that we are menuing [sic] items that we have available in the warehouse. And then it's an inventory control issue to ensure that the items we have in the warehouse are within the current dates."

Connolly produced several documents showing that expired food was served to Boston students. In one case, frozen egg patties were served more than one year after the USDA-recommended "use by" date.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been supplying food for school lunches around the country for decades. The department also issues guidelines to schools about how long the food can be stored frozen and still be safely eaten.

Boston school officials said no one was sickened, but they admitted that there are questions about the nutritional value of long-expired food. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson acknowledged that there have been problems overseeing how the food makes its way to school cafeterias, but she said students were never at risk.

"Let's be clear — the food is safe, all of it is safe," Johnson said. "We've had several calls and emails from parents about this. But let me assure them and you that our dedicated staff would not serve anything to students that they wouldn't serve to their own families."

Johnson also said that since officials started investigating this two weeks ago, they removed close to 300 cases of food well past its expiration date. They've also set aside more than 3,000 cases of food with questionable expiration dates. She said several steps are being taken to make sure there is always high-quality food for students.

But Connolly wasn't convinced.

"I believe if we had a circle in this room right now, BPS [Boston Public Schools] would try to convince me that it's a square," Connolly said.

Parent Jewel Cash wasn't satisfied either. She wants to hear more about the process of overseeing food quality and to hear from more than school administrators.

"I just saw a commercial on TV about parents of dogs, and they're talking about feeding them organic food," Cash said. "Yet you have adults who will open a box, see that food is two years old and not blow a whistle."

This program aired on March 23, 2011.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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