LYNN ― In response to numerous concerns levied by a group of parents, Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting consisted of an open information session regarding the quality of the district’s school lunches ― which were served at the event.
In mid-October, a petition began circulating among Lynn parents along with photos of moldy foods and stories of children getting sick from eating the lunches on offer. Of the outraged parents, one appears to be leading the charge as the informal group’s informal mouthpiece: Sophia Seang.
“Parents and guardians witnessed firsthand that there was a serious problem with the safety of this food,” Seang told The Item in October. “It’s very difficult to trust the food offered once you have seen your child eat moldy cheese or drink chunky milk.”
Chief among parents’ concerns was the fact that many of the Lynn Public Schools, particularly its 18 elementary schools, do not have on-site kitchens. The company which provides the district its food, Revolution Foods, ships prepackaged meals via refrigerated truck to the schools it serves. Hot and cold meals are provided; hot meals are reheated by cafeteria staff, and cold meals are served as-is.
Revolution Foods, which boasts a product line of additive- and preservative-free foods, was subcontracted to Lynn Public Schools through its primary contract with Chartwells, a food-service contracting company.
“One of the criteria for selection (and) why Rev Foods was awarded (the contract) was for fresh, never frozen meals,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Tutwiler in an interview. “That was from feedback from families.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the result of the petition calling for the termination of LPS’ contract with Revolution Foods, which Seang estimates was signed by about 1,200 people in both electronic and paper form. The petition also included language calling for the installation of four kitchens within the city of Lynn that would prepare food locally for school-age children.
Before introducing representatives of both Revolution and Chartwells companies, Tutwiler began the meeting by expressing his appreciation to the audience for their willingness to give feedback and participate in a discussion about the food being served to the city’s schoolchildren.
“We all want our young scholars at the Lynn Public Schools served well and treated with respect in every aspect of their experience (at school),” he said. “And the quality of the meals is a big piece of that experience. The desire for those meals to be fresh, nutritious, and to the liking of our students is common, or shared, between everyone who is in this room this evening.”
Tutwiler delivered his remarks to around 40 parents, many of whom were holding signs, in the cafeteria at Breed Middle School. The superintendent then handed things off to members of Chartwells team ― which included Regional Vice President Eric Pimental, Regional Dietician Sarah Patterson, and Resident Dietician Kelsey Massis. Among the speakers representing Revolution Foods was Director of Customer Success Christina Porter, Chef Michael Roddey, and Senior Executive Alvin Crawford. Both teams then presented their respective missions and philosophy about health, nutrition, and customer service to the parents and committee.
“Our mission is to build lifelong healthy eaters and to transform the Lynn Public School district’s wellness program to make healthy food accessible for all,” said Porter.
Much of Revolution’s presentation centered around how the food it offered was free of additives, nitrates, and preservatives, which Crawford said might account for occasional lapses in quality.
“If you don’t put preservatives in, that means food has four or five days for you to refrigerate it and eat it,” he said. “That’s the world we live in.”
Crawford also touched upon the fact that Revolution’s shipment schedule provides for food to be served within five days of production, providing the perishable items are kept in refrigeration. He added that foods are not shipped on Friday.
At roughly an hour into the meeting, during Roddey’s description of the food on offer that evening (much of which was served to schoolchildren earlier in the day), parents began to wonder aloud when it would be their chance to talk.
A group of parents gathered near the presenters, Seang among them, began raising their hands and asking if they could begin the question-and-answer portion.
“I’d like to ask a question,” a parent said during Roddey’s description of the ingredients comprising Revolution’s chicken-salad sandwiches. “You have to let us talk.”
Another parent mentioned needing to get home to feed her children dinner. Eventually, the floor was opened, and a line of parents formed, some armed with lists of questions that they read from their phones and notepads.
Questions ranged from specific ― do meals prepared on a Thursday get eaten the following Tuesday if there’s a Monday holiday? (yes, but those meals are designed to be shelf-stable) ― to the general ― why is the school district being blamed for issues in Revolution’s quality assessment? (Tutwiler didn’t feel that either Revolution or Chartwells were trying to shift blame onto the district.)
Some parents shared their observations of the food, with Yu-Lung Hui-Kim recalling a boxed meal her child had received over the summer containing “a burger my dog didn’t even want.”
Sour milk was a common refrain, as was mold, spoilage, “mystery meat” and a lack of allergy-friendly options. Hui-Kim asked if it would be possible for parents to drop in during school’s lunch times, which Tutwiler addressed directly by saying he’d be interested in coordinating lunchroom visits with groups of parents.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “I would welcome the opportunity; I think it would be a good experience.”
The atmosphere changed when Seang stepped up to the mic. Seang was joined by a few other moms on whose behalf she was speaking, and she read from a prepared packet of questions about four pages long.
Her tone was stronger than the other parents who spoke.
“We know this has been going on for years and other ‘food tastings’ (like Wednesday night’s) have been arranged but the issue was never resolved,” she said. “Lynn is a city with huge, huge food insecurities and this cannot continue day after day, week after week, month after month. We are looking for Lynn Public Schools to hear what we are saying and get the job done. We don’t want this vendor anymore.”
Seang addressed Tutwiler directly, referring to him as the highest authority on the town’s school-food department.
“You know about the moldy, spoiled, rotten food,” she said. “You are obligated to report this fraud, waste, and abuse.”
The crux of Seang’s speech was a need for transparency. Among her requests from Revolution and the school district were a copy of the contract, records of the complaints filed against the company, and proof that the food had been inspected and was safe according to USDA school-lunch standards.
“We demand transparency because our kids deserve better,” she concluded. By the time she was done speaking, three more parents had joined the line to speak.
When the question-and-answer portion of the evening was finished, parents were invited to partake in the school lunches they claimed made their children sick. Many did.
“We have to keep pushing, we have to keep going,” Seang said after the meeting had concluded. “We have to get some kind of quality assurance and we have to fire this vendor.”
Melody Finnegan, a mother accompanying Seang, had a few other ideas. She mentioned the possibility of utilizing the middle- and high-school kitchens to prepare fresh food after the school day ended.
“We have a big city and we have the capability to do stuff like make fresh food and deliver it.”