Something Rotten

Trainloads of food go to waste while thousands of kids go unfed, courtesy of the school lunch program

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds it receives each year to feed its 365,000 mostly poor students. Gross mismanagement and cronyism have rotted the core of what once was an award-winning program -- resulting in wasted food and an exodus of experienced managers disgusted with a job they used to love. Now top executives in the schools' Department of Food and Nutrition are poised to squander millions more dollars on a host of well-intentioned but expensive projects that lack the preparation and coordination required for success.

How bad can it be? More than a million dollars' worth of free government cheese, whole-wheat flour, lunch meat, and other commodities shipped by the USDA to the school system never reached the stomachs of hungry children. Instead, through a pattern of mismanagement that extends back several years, literally tons of food was allowed to pile up in warehouses until it rotted, molded, or putrefied. Trainloads of ruined food were sent to landfills, and truckloads of overstocked food were pawned off on charities and prisons. Rather than being fired, the principal architect of the mess was given a hefty raise.

This year thousands of children learned to despise school lunches anew, because managers at the schools couldn't get the food they ordered to make the meals they knew their students would eat. "Thirty-five years I've been in the system, and this past year was the worst one ever," says Berta Rivero, a food-service manager at Redland Middle who retired in June. Records and the stories of other managers like Rivero show that superiors dumped masses of overstocked commodities on the schools to cover up extensive mistakes in the food-distribution system that already had resulted in hefty federal fines. "We are forced to use these things," complains a high school food manager who asked to remain anonymous. "You can't keep shoving the same food on the kids. They can blame the government all they want, but we know it's not true."

Thus far the department's annual budget of $122 million (almost 70 percent of which comes from the federal government) is large enough that it has been able to absorb costly mistakes. And district officials haven't traditionally paid a lot of attention to a program they tend to see as "a bunch of short little fat ladies running around in tennis shoes," in the words of one former employee. But with the school district's evolving plan to keep all 88,000 high school students on campus for lunch, this is likely to change. That plan is modestly projected to run some $18 million just in renovation costs. Add in money for additional security monitors, custodians, and other extras, and that amount could easily double.

As overseen by assistant superintendent Onetha J. Gilliard, the department runs the risk of becoming an easy target for proponents of privatizing the business side of education. Huge management companies like Sodexho-Marriott, Aramark, and Chartwells know a wounded animal when they smell one. For years Sodexho-Marriott in particular has been quietly lobbying the right people in an attempt to convince the district to privatize its mammoth food-service program, which Gilliard brags is rivaled in South Florida only by the cruise-ship industry. School officials at the highest levels, including Superintendent Roger Cuevas, emphatically deny that privatization is even a consideration. Yet it was a consulting company affiliated with Sodexho-Marriott that wrote the request for proposal the school district sent out to the business community this past April asking for help managing its lunch program in 35 high schools.

Inexplicably at the same time that the school district was soliciting proposals to redesign its entire high school food program, Gilliard was happily lavishing money on pet projects of questionable value. She spent $263,000 to give the cafeteria at Edison High School a sort of "pirates of the Caribbean" theme without ever putting the project out to bid. In May Gilliard suddenly canceled the request for proposal, saying that none of the handful of bidding companies had satisfied her and that she had decided she didn't need the consulting help anyway. It was an explanation that flabbergasted then-school board member Jacqueline Pepper, who called the move an "unprofessional" and "irresponsible" way to deal with the business community. Critics charge that Gilliard is afraid to let an outside company see what goes on inside the department -- and with good reason.

How could this have happened? The system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep the engine running smoothly and the egos of executives with access to public dollars under control has been short-circuited by cronyism, neglect, and ignorance. The direct results are wasted public money and thousands of students who are not eating the nutritious meals they need to get those high standardized test scores the school district values above all else.

Polly Talks

"I was hoping to have the parrot working while you were here," offers an apologetic assistant principal. "But I think I broke the bird trying to get it to talk." Connie Martinez points to the blue-and-yellow feathered thing perched silently in its cage over the partial hull of a pirate ship rising incongruously from the center of the Edison High cafeteria floor. "It's really great," she adds. "The students are so complimentary."

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