Worker raises questions over food service
Questions raised by a member of the food service staff in the Somerset schools has brought scrutiny to the quality of the food served to students.
The food service for the district is handled by an independent company, A'viands Food and Service Management.
The allegations were brought by Nicole Weidinger, a member of the food service staff at the high school for more than a year.
Weidinger's main concerns were over mold in food items like bread and shredded cheese and mold in a walk-in cooler where food was stored.
Weidinger's complaints led to a surprise inspection last Tuesday by St. Croix County Public Health sanitarian Laurie Diaby. Diaby handles the inspections of 350 food service locations in St. Croix County each year and has taken care of the Somerset school checks for the past seven years.
"I don't remember any problems in the past," Diaby said of the school district inspections.
In the inspection last week, Diaby said she did find some spots of "light mold" in the walk-in cooler. She said that walk-in coolers are an area of high moisture and mold can grow easily in those areas. She said she did not see anything wrong mechanically in the cooler that would cause a mold problem.
It was her recommendation that the coolers be cleaned more frequently with a bleach solution.
Diaby reported that she did not see any molded food in use. She recommended that any shredded cheese showing mold be discarded.
Diaby said she felt the cleanliness of the Somerset school food service was the equal of others in the county.
"All the schools in St. Croix County do a wonderful job," she said.
A'viands is a culinary company specializing in food and services management based in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A'viands operates in nine states and nearly doubled revenues between 2005 and 2007, growing from $34 million to $62.9 million. The markets it serves include higher education, health care, k-12 schools, corporate dining and corrections.
Rick Sorel, the president and chief operating officer at A'viands, said the company follows state or federal standards for food handling.
Sorel said all A'viands food is handled according to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Standards) through the Food and Drug Administration.
Sorel said in speaking with the food service staff at Somerset, they did recall one instance where moldy shredded cheese may have gotten in the food rotation. It was cheese that had been frozen and reached the mold stage quicker than anticipated.
As far as mold issues in walk-in coolers, Sorel said the company has cleaning procedures for all equipment, including ovens and coolers.
"The cleaning process is very thorough," Sorel said. "We're very careful in how we handle foods."
A'viands does serve several school districts in the state, mostly in the Milwaukee area. Sorel said the company is considering making bids to River Falls and St. Croix Falls school districts where contracts are being completed.
David Dees, the interim director of the School Nutrition Team for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, was contacted on the issue.
Dees said schools are required to be inspected two times a year by registered sanitarians, under a USDA rule. He said school food services are under more strict standards than restaurants.
Of the issues raised in this case, Dees was most concerned about allegations that mold might be picked out of shredded cheese or bread and the rest of the package fed to students.
"That's unacceptable," Dees said about mold in cheese. "You can see visible contaminants, but there may be more."
One issue Weidinger claimed was food was being used after its "best if served by" date. Dees said the state "strongly encourages" food to be served by the dates on packages. He said this is especially important in "high protein foods that support growth like milk, cheese and meats."
Weidinger, who has a child attending Somerset Elementary School, said she's learned a great deal from going through this process. She said her goal was to make sure the food served to the children in the district is the best it can be.
Weidinger's concerns were brought to light in a letter to the editor in this week's issue of The News. Since she made her claims, she said she has seen changes made in the food handling in the schools.
"There's no reason those kids should have to eat food that's past its quality assured date," Weidinger said. "I think a lot of other parents would feel the same way."