Something Rotten

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

But the situation should not have happened in the first place. When asked how it did, Gilliard responds protectively: "The person responsible for answering the [audit] would have been Madeline Bowersox, and she retired in September. So Sandra for the most part could not answer that." This is true. It also is true that Shannon is and has been for years the person responsible for ordering and distributing the food, and she controls menu planning, a position that should have made her the first person to realize there was a problem. The worsening condition of the inventory became apparent to Bowersox after the 1996 audit, so she hired a finance coordinator to watch Shannon's work. According to several sources within the department, both tried to confront Shannon at various times in the last couple of years, but little changed.

Bowersox is described by many as a competent administrator who was popular with managers at the schools but not well equipped to handle confrontation. Shannon is considered an assertive woman who has Gilliard's ear. "Madeline was afraid of [Shannon]," one food manager sighs. Shannon declines to comment on the overstocking debacle of the past years but echoes Gilliard's opinion. "The person who was responsible for making sure audits were responded to is no longer with the department." When contacted, Bowersox declined to comment on the record.

But getting rid of Bowersox did not end the department's troubles. The problem Shannon had created was conveniently transferred to the school kitchens. It was the beginning of the 2000-01 school year, and the department officials knew they had to do something with all that stockpiled food. Over the next several months, it was dumped into the schools. "Some of the schools were serving turkey pastrami for weeks," one coordinator remembers. "I don't know how they did it." Managers at the schools banded together to help one another out as much as they could by trading food. "You should see the e-mails," suggests a manager at a school in North Miami-Dade. "They're like, “I have 240 cases of grits to get rid of,' or “I've got 28 cases of tomato sauce to get rid of.'"

Back at the central office, directors sent out memos suggesting innovative, sometimes unlikely, uses of comestibles managers just couldn't get students to eat. One e-mail message told managers to try adding brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and a pie crust to tomato preserves and offer it as a free dessert. Yum. Another, sent out May 31, urged managers to find as many ways as possible to use more shortening in recipes. "Because school site inventories of USDA items cannot exceed six months, every effort must be made to use USDA shortening prior to the close of this school year," the e-mail states. Mandates like those destroy the ability of managers to respond to the wants of the students and discourage students from entering the cafeterias. They also undermine the goal of all the new programs Gilliard has started: to get thousands of poor children eating nutritious meals.

By the end of the year, much of the overstocked food had been used up. And so had the managers, some of whom decided to retire early rather than go through one more year like this one. Berta Rivero, a food manager at Redland Middle for nineteen years, is not alone in thinking that the schools were used as dumping grounds for someone else's mistakes. "It was unfair to schools, because when the schools are audited, they are the ones who look bad," she remarks. "We have a good program. When you have a good program, why are you ordering stuff that we cannot use?"

Carol Cortes, who recalls being "extremely upset over the cheese debacle," repeats the explanation her assistant superintendent has given her: This bungle occurred because the department doesn't have a computer program sophisticated enough to help it count the food that comes in and the food that goes out of warehouses to schools every day. "We are a huge operation that is behind the time technology-wise," she ventures. "Our inventory [system] was basically horse and buggy ... pen and pencil. Then things slipped."

Eat Right, Get Funded Regularly

Onetha Gilliard is a petite, attractive woman of 53 who dresses impeccably, smiles radiantly, and speaks in exclamation points. "Fan-tas-tic!" But there is a flip side to her personality, an insecurity that requires constant feeding. Gilliard likes to feel powerful, competent, and respected -- and she honors the school system tradition of rewarding the loyal over the competent. The subordinates closest to her have learned to tell her only what she wants to hear.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Gilliard arrived with her husband, Clarence, in deep South Dade County just a couple of years after desegregation. She was hired in 1970 as a teacher at South Dade Senior High, became an assistant principal in 1979, and a principal at Campbell Drive Middle in 1984. Gilliard was considered a leader in Homestead's black community, and it is where she formed a close relationship with Eddie Pearson, now the powerful deputy superintendent of school operations. Her husband later became an assistant principal under Pearson's wife, Lula, at the COPE Center South.

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