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Boston schools food program in chaos, report finds

Report details losses, hostile workplace

Widespread dysfunction in the Boston school system’s food service program is leading to millions of dollars in losses each year and creating an apparent “hostile work environment” for employees, according to an external review obtained by the Globe.

The review, commissioned by the School Department and completed last month, found the program had lost more than $21 million over the past eight years, even after the department took steps to rein in costs and increase revenue, such as raising school lunch prices.

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The management problems are so dire that the food program even lacks a system to alert cafeteria cashiers about students with food allergies, potentially putting the students at risk, according to the review by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national consulting and advocacy organization. And the food services frequently plans menus — without consulting individual cafeteria managers — that include products that are unavailable, creating last-minute disarray.

On Sunday, interim Superintendent John McDonough called the findings both “hard-hitting” and “disturbing.” He said the School Department already is taking steps to address some of the problems, such as having the finance division oversee food services instead of operations.

“The review did uncover and made allegations about severe deficiencies that require strong action,” McDonough said in an interview, adding that he was most surprised by the work conditions employees faced.

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“Under no circumstances in BPS will we tolerate a hostile work environment,” McDonough said.

In the review, employees described the leadership style of food service administrators as “management by intimidation.” It noted “several employees became extremely emotional” during interviews, while others refused to speak for fear of reprisal.

Cafeteria managers told interviewers they were threatened with reprimand if they asked too many questions of the central food office. Employees also said their e-mails and phone calls to the food service department often went unanswered.

The food service program has been saddled with problems for years. Most notably, in 2011, then-City Councilor John Connolly conducted a surprise inspection of several cafeterias that revealed that taco meat, cheese, and other food items were kept in freezers well beyond their expiration dates.

In response, the School Department ousted its food service manager, and under new leadership the program appeared to be heading in the right direction. Over the last two years, food services took advantage of special government program to make breakfasts and lunches free for all students regardless of family income, and even started a free food truck last summer that traveled to neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income youths.

But unbeknown to many school observers, the program’s annual deficits began to rise again. The deficit for last year was $3.6 million and is on track to reach that level again — a situation similar to the financial crisis the program faced about five years ago. Last year’s deficit prompted the School Department to commission the review.

Running a deficit in a program that is supposed to be self-funding is problematic, said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog.

“We thought the meal problem had been solved, but apparently that was not the case,” said Tyler, who had not seen a copy of the review. “That means there are dollars allocated to food services that could be better utilized for classroom supplies or other educational needs.”

In the past, the School Department has largely chalked up the deficit to rising food costs and, until the switch to free meals, families who did not pay their lunch bills.

It also said schools sometimes gave away meals to students whose families failed to fill out applications for federally subsidized free meals, causing the School Department to pick up the cost instead of the US government.

But the review, which described the School Department as “extraordinarily tolerant” of the financial losses, said the deficit “may reflect a lack of organizational will to address the underlying structural issues within the program.”

The program, for instance, has no long-term strategic business plan and “does not have people with the appropriate skill sets, backgrounds, and training in several key management positions,” the review said.

McDonough said he was unsure if he agreed with the assertion about unqualified managers.

In many ways, the program largely is still functioning in a pencil-and-paper mind-set, paying vendors with paper vouchers and tabulating worker hours on time sheets. The program also lacks some basic financial protocols, such as a failure to reconcile the number of meals sold at the cafeterias with what is billed by a private contractor that supplies meals to the dozen of schools that have no kitchens.

To fix the problems, the review came up with more than two dozen recommendations, including fully utilizing federal commodities to reduce food costs, computerizing the process of ordering food and tracking work hours, and creating a strategic business plan.

McDonough is expected to give the School Committee a summary of the review at its meeting Wednesday and a more thorough presentation in the coming weeks.

Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman, said he takes the recommendations with the “utmost seriousness” and expects they will be implemented. He said it was disappointing to see the deficit levels grow again and to learn of the work conditions that cafeteria workers may face.

“We need a work environment where they feel valued and appreciated,” said O’Neill, sharing a story about how some cafeteria workers send leftovers home with their students so they can have a meal later. “They know the social and emotional well-being of our students.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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