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Letter: Employee concerned about food

To the Editor:

Over the past year that I have been a food service employee at the Somerset High School, I have always questioned the truthfulness and quality of the food we were serving to the students.

What began as simple questions regarding policies and state code compliance, has now turned into a valuable learning lesson for myself and many others. The school contracts with a food service company to supervise and run its lunch program for our students. I have learned that although this company may comply with state codes and guidelines regarding safe food, most of the time, these guidelines are merely a bare minimum of what is required to remain in operation. I have found out many things I believed would be against code and unsafe, are just not. However, that does not mean that the bare minimum is something any parent should have to settle with when it comes to their child's daily lunch menu.

Just because state codes say it's OK to serve bread past the marked package date and to simply pull out any moldy pieces, doesn't mean that I would want my child consuming that bread as part of her nutritious healthy lunch. Or that potato chips can be sold or served indefinitely, doesn't mean I want them as an option for her to purchase or be served.

Would many parents willingly purchase food from a store if it was past its "use by," "best by" or "quality assured until" date? I certainly wouldn't and would expect the same from the school lunch program.

Kids have complained about stomach aches, cramps and expired milk and yogurt, only to be served it again the next day. I have taken my concerns to my bosses, supervisor and to the company's district manager, only to have mine and any other fellow "talkers'" jobs threatened.

I have been instructed to "pick through" the moldy shredded cheese, even though the USDA Web site says to discard shredded cheese with mold and cut an inch away from mold for block cheese.

I was told the mold growing on the floor and walls of the walk-in cooler would be taken care of on Wednesday, Feb. 4, after I had brought it to proper authority attention back on Friday, Jan. 23. That mold was not taken care of as I write this letter, the evening of Feb. 4.

I have also been instructed, by the district manager of the company, to no longer talk to the superintendent or principal of the school about the issues and that "my talking and questioning is to end immediately."

I do not hold the officials at the school responsible for the quality, freshness and safety of the food we serve the children because the food service is far more complicated and difficult to understand than most people would think. I do, however, hold the food service director, the contracted company, its supervisors and district managers at fault for treating our children and students as if they are not worth the highest quality and the safest procedures that one can provide.

Lunch prices were just raised and yet our kids still don't deserve food that has not exceeded the quality date? I have, and will continue, to fight for my child and every last student at the Somerset School District until I achieve an acceptable outcome for those kids, even if I lose my job in the process.

What if a child with a weakened immune system got sick, really sick? I couldn't live with the guilt and shame of knowing that I gave up.

What about the other school in Somerset? Is that school under the same contracted company? Are the kids there not being served the best quality and freshest food available? If it is the same company and things are running OK, then perhaps the bigger problem lies within the public school, and the person or people in charge of the food service program are also at fault?

I have nothing to gain personally by bringing this issue to light, except knowing that I have done all I could do, including reporting the mold growth to the state health inspector. I probably have more to lose by opening my mouth, and therefore anyone in doubt of my intentions can rest assured.

No big name, contracted company, can bully me into silence, because I believe in my heart that this is truly not right or fair to any measure or at any level. No one is going to tell me that my child doesn't deserve the same quality of food that other districts offer.

I will continue to talk to anyone who will listen, even if I continue to get into trouble for doing so, until I know without a doubt, that our kids are safe and the food is of our reasonable standard of quality, not a bare minimum. I feel the district should not continue its contract with this company, but find a company that believes our kids are worth more.

I apologize to the officials at the school district if my letter causes the phones there to ring, but perhaps the parent opinions on the matter can help those officials to make the right decision regarding our children. I believe they also truly want the best for our kids.

Nicole Weidinger