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School officials say food is safe despite recent incidents

Cafeteria workers at Unicoi County Middle School prepare a lunch consisting of broccoli, teriyaki beef, macaroni and cheese, cheese sticks and carrots. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On April 9, a few students reported mold on muffins they were served during breakfast at Unicoi County Middle School. The muffins were not actually baked at the school, but were instead pre-packaged and supplied by the food vendor Sky Blue with an expiration date of December 28, 2018.

“We would never intentionally serve a kid something like that, but I think you have a reasonable expectation if you go to the store as a consumer and you buy a box of anything and the expiration date is eight months from now, you assume the product is going to be okay,” said John English, director of Unicoi County Schools.

The system’s food service also recently drew criticism for what was reported to be a molded biscuit served at Unicoi County High School.

The Friday before the incident, Unicoi County Middle School received a visit from the Tennessee Department of Health, which inspects each school twice a year. Unicoi County Middle School was awarded a health score of 98, losing two points due to the location where a spray nozzle on the hose of the dishwasher was stored.

“We feel like that speaks to the quality of our food service, not these isolated incidents,” said English. “I don’t think it was negligence at all on the food workers part.”

English added that to his knowledge only a very small number of muffins were affected, and the schools are still finding ways to combat potential issues with food distributors, such as carefully inspecting each food item.

“We had 453 kids we fed that morning,” said Maggie Fair, food service supervisor for Unicoi County Schools. “The only ones we got back were from seventh grade, so evidently it was just one case.”

As two cafeteria workers served the students, Fair said the mold could have easily gone undetected, not only due to the large volume of students being served, but also because the muffins were chocolate chip muffins that possibly didn’t show the discoloration very distinctly.

According to Fair, 75 percent of the food served at Unicoi County schools comes from a vendor or distributor and 25 percent is cooked in-house.

“We probably have one or two menu items a week that we make like tacos, spaghetti or chicken casserole … so there’s really not a lot,” Fair said. “Most of it is just we heat and serve. We work really hard and we put out close to 1,000 meals a day at the middle school between breakfast and lunch.”

Since the incident occurred, Fair has met with all cafeteria managers to reiterate the importance of trying to thoroughly inspect any food supplied by vendors in the future. She said from now on workers are now snapshotting and filing expiration dates of all pre-packaged food items.

“As difficult as it may be, we’re looking at trying to make sure we have some kind of look at all pre-packaged items we serve,” said English.

The Sky Blue company has reportedly apologized and reimbursed the school system for the muffins because the package indicated they were well within the expiration date.

“We’re getting financial credit back for the product, but the damage has still been done,” said Fair.

Sky Blue is one of several distributors used by the Unicoi County School System, which is in a buying group with 14 other counties in East Tennessee, all of which supply their school cafeterias with food from the same vendors.

“It’s not just our system,” Fair said. “We have to go by bids and they have to meet special specifications. We also have to meet guidelines, for instance, all of our grains have to be 50 percent whole grain.”

Based on state and federal regulations, the schools are required to meet specific standards for the amount of fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, starches, milk and meat served for each student. For example, for grades sixth through eighth, students must be served at least five cups of fruit during breakfast throughout the week and almost four cups of vegetables during lunch throughout the week.

Aside from the recent 98 health score rating for the middle school, Unicoi County High School received a 99 health score in February, Temple Hill Elementary School received a 100 in March, Rock Creek Elementary School received a 100 in March, Love Chapel Elementary School received a 100 last September and Unicoi Elementary School received a 100 last August.

“I would put my kitchens up against any restaurant in the Tri-Cities,” said Fair.