Actions speak louder than words

Special to the I-O by Lisa Schmidt

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI) requires school kitchens to be licensed and inspected by county sanitarians.
Only they don’t.

School districts that receive a portion of Montana‘s $30,370,593.88 from the USDA’s National School Lunch Program have to pass a sanitarian’s inspection twice a year.

Only they don’t.

OPI’s two sets of rule books seem to stem from a conflict of interest that becomes much more intense at a time when all state agencies are facing severe budget cuts.

School kitchens serve the public, just as restaurants and caterers do, so sanitary conditions and safe food handling are paramount to offering healthy food to Montana’s students. Restaurants, cafeterias and mobile units that prepare or serve food or drinks, with or without charge, must meet health codes that are established by the Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS).

In fact, in a letter to all school districts dated Nov. 24, 2009, State Superintendent Denise Juneau reiterated this law and the need for all school kitchens to comply. School administrators were asked to contact their county sanitarians for a license before Dec. 31, 2009.

The Pendroy School District, comprised of a single elementary school housed at Rockport Colony in Teton County, did not pass inspection so Teton County sanitarian Corrine Rose did not issue a license.

OPI was well aware of the problem. OPI director of school nutrition programs Chris Emerson wrote a letter stating “the Office of Public Instruction will withhold payment for National School Lunch Program meals until a copy of the food service license has been received in our office.”

Pendroy School District continues to receive National School Lunch Program funding. In fact, every one of the 42 Pendroy Elementary students receives a free lunch every school day.

OPI receives federal funding based on the number of students who participate in the National School Lunch Program. The USDA provides a higher level of funding for low-income students who qualify for free or reduced meals.

“OPI received $369,742 for the 2010 school year to administer the School Programs (lunch, breakfast, snacks and milk); and $49,277 to administer the 2009 Summer Food Service Program,” wrote Chris Emerson in email communication.

Emerson, who supervises both the School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Program in Montana, will spend that money on personnel services, general administration (phones, supplies, etc.), travel and indirect expenses, she said. Emerson’s salary is at least partially funded with National School Lunch Program funds.

During 2009, Montana schools served 14,399,344 lunches and 4,321,383 breakfasts. In the summer of 2009, food program sites served 268,381 lunches and 101,055 breakfasts.

Pendroy School District will serve meals as a part of the 2010 Summer Food Program, too, and all children from age 2.5 to 18 are eligible to eat those meals. Administrators expect to feed about 70 children will be fed each day.

Increasing the conflict of interest even further, a state’s funding from Title I, the No Child Left Behind Act, also is based on the number of students who participate in the National School Lunch Program and funding increases for schools as the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches increases. Schools that have at least 40 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced lunches can spend Title 1 funds on programs for the whole school instead of specifically targeting low-income students.

Montana schools need the federal money.

The federal Title I program sends $34 million to Montana as long as school districts attempt to meet No Child Left Behind educational standards. Almost 36 percent of Montana schools receive increased Title I funding because students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Which means Teton sanitarian Rose has quite a lot of pressure to license school kitchens.

She thinks sanitary conditions trump cash flows.

Responsibility with no authority

Rose, who is employed by Teton and Pondera Counties and receives direction from Montana’s DPHHS, can shutter a commercial kitchen if the kitchen does not meet health standards as Rose interprets them.

Kitchens must have proper ventilation systems, an open gap in water drains, thermometers to monitor safe temperatures in commercial refrigerators and other physical requirements. Commercial kitchens also must demonstrate that the food comes from approved sources. Milk must be pasteurized and meat must be inspected. DPHHS and OPI encourage kitchen workers to attend food safety classes, but neither state agency requires a certificate of completion.

Remodeling an existing kitchen to meet commercial health codes can cost $10,000 to $15,000, Rose estimated.

OPI requires school kitchens to pass two county sanitarian inspections each year or school lunch program funding will be withheld. While Rose usually schedules an inspection with each school, she can perform surprise inspections if she wants. Yet, Rose is not authorized to enter private kitchens.

The Pendroy School District kitchen is considered a private kitchen because food for the whole Rockport Hutterite Colony is prepared and served there.

Last fall, after OPI sent the letter that outlined the need for a commercial kitchen license and the steps to receive one, Pendroy School officials invited Rose to inspect the Rockport Colony kitchen.

The kitchen did not pass inspection and, additionally, Rose did not receive verification that the food being served was coming from approved sources.

“I’m not opposed to any school district participating in the school lunch program, but they need to meet the same safety standards as all the rest of the schools,” Rose said.

When asked why Pendroy School District continues to receive School Lunch Program funding without meeting OPI’s stated requirements, OPI School Nutrition Program Director Emerson only responded: “Please contact the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Resources regarding food service licensure requirements.”

Apparently, at OPI, cash trumps child safety.