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CBS2 Exclusive: Amid Contaminated School Food Complaints, Documents Show DOE Execs Took Trips Paid For By Food Makers

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — More than a million New York City students depend on school lunches every day, but not every meal served is appetizing.

CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer exposed problems with school lunches back in March. But Kramer reported Wednesday night that not only are the problems still there, but those in charge of the lunch problem may be looking the other way.

Who wouldn’t love the glitz and glamour of the National Restaurant Show? Records obtained by CBS2 showed some executives from the city’s Department of Education got to attend — year after year — on the dime of manufacturers contracted by the city to provide school lunches.

“It’s an inherent conflict,” said city Public Advocate Letitia James.

Also conflicting is the disgusting food that some of the same manufacturers, and others, have been serving to New York City kids.

Among the disgusting food items were discolored meat, moldy juice, and even chicken tainted with choking hazards like metal bits and bones that on at least one occasion required the Heimlich maneuver.

In addition to the dozens of reports of moldy, discolored and expired food, CBS2 also found incidents involving:

• Curdled chocolate milk;
• A long pink/red worm found in a beef burger;
• Pieces of plastic inside closed fruit cups;
• A garden snake in a kale salad.

“A million plus children eat in our public schools each and every day, and in some cases, it’s their only food,” James said, “and it’s really outrageous.”

It is outrageous and quite possibly outside the law, James said.

Kramer: “Do you get the sense that the manufacturers are being put before the children?”

James: “They are here to basically serve themselves. It is unconscionable.”

Records, which the DOE refused to hand over for more than six months, show four executives have traveled all over the country — from Miami and Las Vegas to San Antonio and Los Angeles — paid for by lunch manufacturers and other special interest groups. One of the executives even spent a week in Paris, records show.

They took nearly $75,000 worth of trips altogether, Kramer reported.

“Clearly, it is unacceptable,” James said.

The reason often given for the travel was for a tour of “manufacturer facilities.” But sources told CBS2 that was just an excuse for wining and dining by companies hungry for a piece of the city’s $750 million school lunch budget.

“The number one rule is you cannot accept gifts from the people you are doing business with,” James said.

CBS2 obtained a copy of a distributor contract, and it is all right here in black and white: “The contractor shall not give any gift or thing of value… to any… employee… whose salary is payable… from the City Treasury. Any violation… shall terminate… the contract.”

Neither schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña nor Mayor Bill de Blasio would stop and talk to Kramer about it. But later in a statement, Fariña claimed the department has “…strict regulations that pertain to DOE-related travel…. The trips did not violate these regulations, and were approved in accordance with DOE regulations.”

In 2015, a Los Angeles audit found similar ethical concerns with their food services department, which at the time was under the direction of Dennis Barrett.

Barrett came to New York as the executive director of School Food, and over the last four years, he accepted more than $23,000 in trips — many of them paid for by school lunch manufacturers, records show.

Last March. Barrett’s boss, Eric Goldstein, defended him.

“Mr. Barrett works in school food and he does a wonderful job,” Goldstein said.

But shortly after that interview, and after Kramer demanded records of the trips, Barrett resigned.

Goldstein himself has taken more than $16,000 in trips over the last four years — many of which were paid for by the Urban School Food Alliance. The alliance is a nonprofit of which coincidentally, Goldstein is the chief operating officer.

“I’m calling upon the chancellor – Chancellor Carmen Fariña – to overhaul this particular unit, to immediately suspend these individuals, and to put in place some standards and some oversight,” James said.

The Public Advocate told CBS2 that executive travel as seen in the documents should be approved by an outside agency, which would be the City’s Ethics Board.

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