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City dumps 200 tons of contaminated, spoiled USDA food;

student complaints about poor quality meals gain credence

(Published June 5, 2000)


Staff Writer

Almost 200 tons of rodent-contaminated, insect-infested or moldy food – some held in storage more than six years beyond its legal use date – found at a D.C. Public Schools food warehouse late last year is prompting charges of an official cover-up, lies and incompetence in the city’s federally funded programs that feed children.

Some city employees involved in the inspection that uncovered the spoiled food say they have been unjustly fired or removed from investigation-related duties for their "whistleblower" actions.

And at least two high-ranking DCPS employees with supervisory responsibility over food operations have resigned.

City Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-At large, recently accused one of those officials – Assistant Superintendent Mary-Elizabeth Beach – of lying to the council’s education committee at an April hearing about the existence of an official report on the warehouse contamination.

And while Theodore Gordon, chief of the health department’s Food Protection Branch, testified at that same council hearing that the DCPS food warehouse is "now in full compliance" with safe food-handling regulations, DCPS officials have refused repeated recent requests to allow The Common Denominator to visit the warehouse.

Moldy apple juice, distributed through the warehouse, was served to students at Spingarn Senior High School on March 29 but not reported to the Food Protection Branch until the day before the council committee’s April 13 hearing, according to testimony presented at that hearing.

"I think the proof of culpability is that the problem continues," Mendelson said in an interview last week with The Common Denominator. "As far as I can tell, it’s sheer incompetence."

While officials grapple with reports and regulations, trying to resolve longstanding dysfunction in management of the city’s food and nutrition programs for children, DCPS students continue to complain about the poor quality and insufficient quantity of food they are served in the school breakfast and lunch programs.

"There really is no reason for a child to go hungry in this city," said Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, who chairs the education committee. "We have the federal government’s resources."

But critics of the city’s federally funded child nutrition programs note that mismanagement resulted in the illegal diversion or misappropriation of $7.4 million in federal resources intended to be spent on those programs during the 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 school years alone, as documented by a U.S. Department of Agriculture audit.

Everyone involved in trying to resolve the management problems – including politicians, school officials and parents – agrees there are few quick answers. But in a city where thousands of poor children eat their only nutritious meal of the day at school, the impact of serving those children what many students have described as "unfit for human consumption" is enormous.

"I think what we’re feeding the kids is the issue," Mendelson said. He referred to the pre-plated meals currently being prepared by out-of-state contractors and served to the city’s schoolchildren as "schlock."

There are some indications the years of student complaints about school food are finally being recognized by parent groups as more than kids’ idle whining. Several schools’ parent-teacher groups, including the PTA at Aiton Elementary School in Ward 7, became acutely aware of the problem when students constantly complained of being hungry.

"The only reason you don’t hear an uproar about this is that the parents just don’t know how bad it is," said Michele Tingling-Clemmons, who recently started a group called Parents and Friends for Quality School Meals. "We expect our kids to complain about food and we blow them off, frankly."

Tingling-Clemmons, who helps schools across the country implement their federally funded breakfast programs, said her daughter’s complaints about food at Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill being unfit to eat made her pay attention to the problem.

"The final straw came when one of my classmates got french fries that included a salted roach," Tingling-Clemmons’ eighth-grade daughter, Nzingha, told the council’s education committee in April. The incident prompted Nzingha to begin surveying the student body at her school about problems and desired improvements. Similar surveys have been done during the past school year at several other schools, including Bell Multicultural and Spingarn high schools.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator