Something Rotten

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

As with many of the projects Gilliard has jumped into in the past year, the ideas behind the Edison High makeover are good. The enthusiastic assistant super has launched half a dozen major projects aimed at changing the meat loaf-and-hairnet image of the food-service program. She's started a universal feeding program at two dozen elementary and middle schools, introduced milk vending machines, and initiated an à la carte program using fast-food vendors designed to appeal to finicky teenagers at the high schools.

That's part of the problem: It may be too much to do all at once for a department with little experience in innovation. Some of the programs, such as the universal feeding program, could end up costing the department's budget a substantial amount if not well planned in advance. But Gilliard is not hearing that from eager-to-please underlings. "It's all part of the change in school food service," chirps Tom Holmberg, a beefy, red-faced man whose dress sense and manner suggest the corporate restaurant manager he once was. He pauses to make sure Gilliard is listening to him. "And thank God we have a boss who supports us."

101 Delights of Turkey Pastrami

Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget
Jennie Zeiner
Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget
Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget
Jennie Zeiner
Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget

At her office in Tallahassee last spring, state bureau of food distribution chief Gloria VanTreese reviewed with some amazement an audit written by her staff on the Miami-Dade County USDA commodity food program. From mid-1998 to May 2000, the sheer amount of food that either was thrown away or was so old it might soon have to be was staggering. During that period the school district reported losses of $406,642. Literally tons of moldy mozzarella was deemed unfit for human consumption, and the district was forced to repay $263,000 to the USDA. State inspections of schools and warehouses turned up another $735,666 worth of commodities that the audit mildly notes, "may have passed the end of their useful shelf life." (The school district used or sent to other organizations most of this aged food and did not have to pay fines on it.) The cause of all this waste is clear: an egregious stockpiling of food.

Unfortunately for the Department of Food and Nutrition, the state was starting to get tough on school districts with major violations of the rules governing the school lunch program. "To me, that's a large dollar amount," VanTreese allows. "It seems like an awful lot. I don't like to see things wasted, because this is good food, and we have a lot of needy people who could benefit from it." The crackdown should not have surprised the school district. After the last state audit in 1996, the department's then-executive director Madeline Bowersox had issued a series of memos reminding managers at the schools to write the manufacturing dates on every food item and to use the oldest items first. One memo stated that in the 1996 audit, "numerous items were found to have pack dates from 1990-1994." But the real problem was not in the school kitchens. It was back at the central office, where the food was being ordered and then shipped out to schools.

A New Times examination of a sampling of the records of commodities received and distributed from the warehouses in the past five years reveals a clear pattern of stockpiling. Truckloads of items such as whole-wheat flour, turkey pastrami, mozzarella cheese, and apple-cinnamon snacks among other victuals kept coming in to the warehouses but only trickling out to the schools. At times some of this food would be sent to programs such as South Florida Food Recovery or the Daily Bread Food Bank. The department claims it has little control over the amounts of commodities the USDA chooses to send and that some of the food just wasn't popular with the schools. "Once the decision has been made by your district, you're usually locked in," says planning and production district coordinator Sandra Shannon.

VanTreese disputes the explanation that it's the federal government's fault tons of free food rotted away. Each school district submits a grocery list every year telling the state what kind and how much of the available commodities it will need the following year. "Should they decide in the meantime to say, ďOops, we don't want it or need it,' they can refuse up to twenty percent," she clarifies. "It wasn't like we loaded them because we had no place to send it. Pretty much what you order is what you're going to receive." And the school district, in the person of Shannon, kept ordering more every year.

The May 2000 audit and federal fines produced immediate consequences in the food and nutrition department. The school district's audit department issued its own caustic report that summer echoing the state's findings and further estimating that it cost $74,000 just to keep some of the food sitting in storage for more than two years. That audit didn't mention another hidden cost. While it may be mostly "free" money from the federal government that was wasted, when the school district doesn't find clever, efficient ways to make the most of gratis commodities, it must buy the food to feed its children from vendors, millions of dollars' worth every year. After the audits the entire management structure of the department was reorganized at the behest of Gilliard and her bosses. Shannon's boss, Madeline Bowersox, was demoted and subsequently retired, while Shannon got a pay raise and more authority. Checks and balances, which insiders say are mostly just rehashes of old procedures already in place, were implemented to prevent such an embarrassing situation from happening again.

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