Posters marketing the city school’s food program are the picture of health. Apples smile as they do shoulder presses and hammer curls. Veggies grin as they bask in the light of a cheery sun. The subway and bus advertisements are part of a years-long campaign to increase participation in the meals program, which is seen as both a weapon against hunger and a boost to young learners.
A different side of the program is reflected in emails obtained by City Limits that show a recent mini-crisis over frozen pizza.
The New York City Department of Education’s SchoolFood division runs one of the largest feeding programs in the country, believed to be second only to the U.S. military in the number of diners who partake of its breakfast and lunch offerings. With a budget of half a billion dollars—funded largely by federal reimbursements—the program involves a mix of public and private players. Some 1,600 DOE employees work with a set of private companies that provide the food as well as another group of firms that store and deliver those products to school kitchens.
In May, the DOE ordered those delivery companies to retrieve thousands of cases of Red Baron frozen pizza, distributed by the Minnesota-based Schwan Food Company, because of a complaint of mold. Last month, however, the DOE ordered at least some of that same batch of pizza redelivered to schools. The DOE even waived its normal requirement that food delivered to schools have at least 45 days of shelf-life left to facilitate those deliveries.
Last week, however, staff at Urban Assembly, a school in Manhattan, reported finding mold in a slice of the same pizza. DOE earlier this week ordered delivery companies to stop delivering the Red Baron pizza again.
On Thursday morning, after inquiries by City Limits, Schwan’s said it would stop providing sliced pizza to the schools.
Asked about the pizza incidents, the DOE said on Wednesday that it had tested the pizza and found no mold, just a discoloration issue that affected a limited number of items.
It was unclear if that testing was done in May or after last week’s report. DOE declined to make the SchoolFood official in charge of the menu, Director of Food and Menu Management Stephen O’Brien, available for an interview, and the agency declined to provide answers to questions about the timeline by press time.
Schwan’s, which is in the midst of a five-year, $36 million contract to provide food to the school system, told City Limits via statement Thursday morning that “that the quality of our food has been a source of great pride for our company for more than six decades. Any time we receive a complaint, we take it extremely seriously.”
Schwan’s spokesman Chuck Blomberg added: “We have not had a mold issue with this product. We can tell you that we have received a small number of reports of discoloration on a sliced-pizza product we supply specifically to the New York City school district. Based on third-party lab reports and an examination of the pizza by our food scientists and food-safety professionals, we are confident this is not a food-safety concern.”
“The pizza slices in question, however, do not represent the quality that we expect in every product that we make,” Blomberg continued. “As a result, Schwan’s Food Service is working with the school district to withdraw our sliced-pizza products from the market and reimburse the school district for those items. The product that we will be withdrawing is made only for the New York City school district. No other food items are involved.”
Emails reflect the changing directives around pizza over the past five months.
On May 16, SchoolFood staff member Ngozi Aniegboka sent an email to staff at city schools that read: “Until further notice DONOT (sic) ship Slice Pizza BF FS 165 (Red Baron).”
Nine says later, Debbi Ascher, director of supply chain management at SchoolFood, told the delivery companies via email: “SF is asking that distributors begin picking up ALL SLICED PIZZA (ALL PRODUCTION DATES) on Tuesday, 5/31/16, through the week. Whenever you make a delivery at a school, the site will have product for you to pick up.”
Ascher sent out an update to the delivery firms on July 21. “As you are all preparing to gear up for your big August “back to school” deliveries in a few weeks, I wanted to give you an update on the pizza slice,” she wrote. “Please note, at this time, Schwan’s pizza slice is STILL on hold. No inventory is to be distributed and/or ordered for the field.
But by August 23rd, the policy changed. “Please note, effective immediately, SF [SchoolFood] will begin serving Schwan’s Pizza Slice,” Ascher told the delivery companies. “We are aware that you currently have a 2-23 pack date in inventory. For this instance, SF will be waiving the 45 days minimum shelf life remaining at time of delivery.”
After the complaint last week from Urban Assembly, however, a new notice went out on Monday. “Effective immediately, ALL Pizza Slice, (BF FS165) has been placed on hold,” was Ascher’s message. “A quality complaint was fielded and until the investigation has been completed, you are not deliver pizza slice.”
The school food system is no stranger to trouble. In the 1990s, 13 food company executives went to federal prison for rigging bids on school-food contracts. During the early Bloomberg years, DOE adopted a consultant’s proposal to consolidate its delivery system; the idea performed disastrously at first, leading to large fines against delivery companies and delays in food reaching schools.
New York isn’t the only school meals program that’s faced challenges. Last year, David Binkle, the head of the Los Angeles school system’s food program, was fired amid charges of failing to report payments by vendors and other allegations. A 2015 audit by the LA school district’s inspector general was critical of a program in which, to win contracts, vendors had to contribute money to the meals program’s marketing effort.
According to the Los Angeles Times, that initiative was launched by a previous LA food service director, Dennis Barrett, who is now executive director of the New York SchoolFood program.
City Limits’ reporting on food policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.