Talk to students anywhere, and school food has never been something to brag about. At Marietta City Schools, there was more reason to seek alternative lunchtime fare as officials, responding to a whistle-blower's claims, confirmed that two schools in the district had kept expired food in their cafeterias.
On Wednesday, DeShea Johnson, a Subway restaurant manager, was registering her seventh-grade son as a transfer student at Marietta Middle School amid the unsettling food disclosures, when she offered this solution, "I think we'll be brown-bagging it until we find out more information."
Citing an ongoing district investigation, Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck wouldn't name the schools involved that are among the 12 in operation, but said no students had become ill because of bad food.
"We're going deep into this," Lembeck said. "This situation needs to be fixed."
While metro Atlanta health and school officials said this appeared to be a rare instance of expired-food abuse for local schools, questions persist whether a much bigger problem actually exists.
Karen Gulley, a manager with the Cobb and Douglas County Health Department, said her inspectors made expired-food discoveries that involved peanut butter at Marietta High School on Sept. 8 and and cheese products at A.L. Burrus Elementary School on March 17, 2009. The unopened can of peanut butter was still in stock 32 months past its expiration date. There was no information readily available from health officials on the cheese products, which were discarded.
However, Gulley could not verify if these were the food examples and schools cited by the whistle-blower, or independent of them.
A man identified as Howard Clotfelter, a former warehouse manager, told WGCL-TV that cafeterias had used scrambled egg mix, cheese, turkey loaf and yogurt past their expiration dates, and the schools did nothing when he reported it. Clotfelter could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
“When he made a statement that there was expired food in our schools, his allegation was credible,” Lembeck said of the existence of the tainted supplies.
While Cobb County records show that most of its schools received high scores and A grades on two yearly health inspections, Burrus received a 76, a C, once the expired cheese products were discovered. Burrus' grade was bad enough to warrant a follow-up inspection. Inspectors also found that cut tomatoes were kept at temperatures too warm on the serving line, which could lead to bacteria growth, and there were no dates marked on some food that had been prepared and stored.
Tom Cheater, Marietta school board member and the father of two Marietta Middle School students, said he was concerned by the expired-food discoveries. Cheater said the district had hired an independent consultant who would conduct an audit of the food-service employees and quality control.
There has been an unconfirmed report by WGCL-TV that Marietta City Schools food-service workers might have been using food past the recommended date in order to save money. If that was the case, it was unacceptable, school board member Stuart Flemming said.
“We’re all trying to make sure we control costs, but we cannot allow for cost control measures to put at risk children’s nutrition or health,” Flemming said.
Several years ago, the Clayton County school system experienced its own problems with expired food, but the situation was handled with more stringent rules and there hasn't been another occurrence, spokesman Charles White said. He couldn't provide any details of the past abuse.
Cobb County school system will use the Marietta City Schools situation as an opportunity to enhance its food safety policies,though its track record is clean, spokesman Jay Dillon said. “Thanks to these procedures and safeguards, we have not experienced any problems with old or expired food,” he said.
Cobb County, the state’s second-largest school system behind Gwinnett, monitors expiration dates at several staff levels. School managers receive e-mails when items are close to expiring, and anything that can’t be used by that date is discarded.
Atlanta Public Schools uses the federal department of agriculture’s first-in, first-out food inventory management system in all its schools and in the district’s warehouse, said schools spokesman Keith Bromery. The district has not had any reports of old food being served, he said.
Because of the size of the Gwinnett school district -- 161,000 students and 130 schools serving breakfast and lunch -- the system does not maintain its own food warehouse, spokesman Sloan Roach said. Food managers are instructed to dispose and keep track of expired food, and work with the distributor to make sure these tainted supplies are not shipped out.
Fulton County school system stores only USDA food at its warehouse and conducts weekly deliveries to schools from the warehouse and food vendors, spokeswoman Allison Toller said in an e-mail.
In Cherokee County school system, food beyond its expiration date is covered in bleach to ensure it is not used before being thrown out, said Susan Turner, the district’s school nutrition supervisor. Anything worth more than $100 is placed in the school’s dumpster just before trash pickup; anything over $100 is taken to a landfill.
Staff writers Janell Davis and Marcus K. Garner contributed to this article.