Spoiling biscuits, expired milk, soggy sandwiches, food that looks uncooked inside. Since the school year started, junior Gabriella Wakole and her friends have complained about the quality of food and lack of meal choices in the Lawrence High School cafeteria.
“This is what Lawrence Public Schools be feeding us,” Gabriella posted Sept. 27 tagging the district’s Facebook account along with a collage of food photos that included chicken pieces that appeared pink in the center. “I opened every chicken and they were all like this, moldy biscuits, cold not cooked all the way food and spoiled milk … Free food but stopped caring …”
Referencing the free breakfasts and lunches available to all Kansas students during the 2021-2022 school year through the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, Gabriella voiced her frustration online and in person with the school’s administrators but said she felt put off. School administrators snapped photos of the food and took her complaints, but problems — mainly lack of variety and quality — have persisted, the teen said.
As for mold growing on biscuits, that could pose a danger and should be avoided. According to a food safety bulletin on the USDA’s website, some molds — in the right conditions — produce mycotoxins, which are poisonous substances that can cause illness; and furthermore, some molds can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems.
Only part of the mold on a food is visible on the outside, according to the USDA. Lurking under the surface: root threads. In dangerous molds, poisonous substances often live in and around the threads, and in some cases toxins might have spread throughout the food.
District spokesperson Julie Boyle said in an email an LHS administrator communicated “immediately” with the food service manager after receiving the student’s feedback. Boyle said biscuits arrive precooked and frozen and are removed from the freezer for service the next day.
“Our food service staff appreciates the student bringing the concern to the administration’s attention and recognizes that we must do better. Our staff are being more diligent in inspecting food being served to ensure that all student meals are safe and appetizing,” Boyle said. “It’s possible the product may have come in that way or that once the biscuit was bagged, it wasn’t served in a timely manner. Again, cafeteria staff are more thoroughly inspecting all products being served.”
As for the chicken, an article on the USDA website explains why some poultry — even if it’s cooked thoroughly — might appear pink inside due to chemical changes that occur during cooking: “Often meat of younger birds shows the most pink because their thinner skins permit oven gases to reach the flesh. Older animals have a fat layer under their skin, giving the flesh added protection from the gases. Older poultry may be pink in spots where fat is absent from the skin. Also, nitrates and nitrites, which are often used as preservatives or may occur naturally in the feed or water supply used, can cause a pink color.”
Still, thoroughly pre-cooked meats require reheating to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to kill bacteria. Based on her experiences with the appearance, taste and texture of some menu items, Gabriella questions whether that standard has been met in foods such as chicken chunks and patties before they hit cafeteria trays at LHS.
Boyle confirmed in an email the chicken served arrives fully cooked and frozen. “Food service staff cook it until it’s internal temperature reaches 165 degrees and is kept in a hot holding cabinet until lunch service.” Ground beef, Boyle explained, is the only meat product district school cafeterias serve that doesn’t arrive fully cooked.
A check of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s food service inspection records show the LHS cafeteria in compliance during its last inspection, Aug. 30.
Even carrots and ranch dressing miss the mark this year, Gabriella said, noting the individual ranch servings are sealed but stored at room temperature, making the dressing less palatable, in her opinion. “It could at least be refrigerated. Sometimes when I don’t eat a main meal, I at least like to eat carrots and ranch.”
She said only one meal — a particular type of pizza — tastes OK to her this year. “Even the Crispitos tasted nasty,” Gabriella said, referring to the popular tortilla-wrapped meat and cheese school lunch staples. She described the tater tots the school serves as “hard,” and said wrappers make the food they contain — like sandwiches — soggy. Besides quality improvements, she’d like more variety. With her grandma washing dishes in the kitchen at LHS, she had offered to bring a sack lunch for her granddaughter on the days when chicken chunks were served, which Gabriella said, seems like “every other day.”
With supply chain issues, Boyle said, the student’s point about limited offerings is valid. “Schools nationwide, including ours, are experiencing limited food product availability and limited quantities. At the same time, our schools have a greater need for food products since we are able to serve free meals to all students. Food service currently has a three-week cycle for its lunch menus and a two-week cycle for its breakfast menus. When more products are made available, staff will add variety to school menus.”
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.