ROGERSVILLE — Cherokee High School senior Olivia Ewing picked the roast pork for lunch last Wednesday in the school cafeteria, but she only got through one or two bites before pushing it away.
She didn’t know at the time that the pork on her plate had been sitting in a school freezer since 2010.
“I didn’t notice anything suspicious,” Ewing told the Times-News Thursday. “It had some gravy over top of it … so I just took it and sat down — me and a couple of my friends — and had a couple of bites. It was just an odd taste. I don’t even know how to describe it. It wasn’t pleasant.”
Ewing added, “It kind of had a ‘bleachy’ taste. You could tell it was really old by the texture.”
Ewing attended Thursday’s meeting of the Hawkins County Board of Education’s Food Service Department Review Committee with classmate Peyton Brooks.
Brooks told the Times-News she didn’t even know it was pork.
“It just smelled weird,” Brooks said. “I wouldn’t have ate it anyway, but it smelled weird. It looked weird. I didn’t even know it was pork.”
The BOE meeting room in Rogersville was packed Thursday with concerned parents and several county commissioners.
Following a BOE discussion, which didn’t include public comments, the committee agreed to recommend a new frozen food policy for approval when the BOE meets in regular session May 7.
Pork roast dating between 2009 and 2011 was prepared at all 18 Hawkins County Schools last week. The only school where it wasn’t served was the K-2 Joseph Rogers Primary School.
Director of Schools Steve Starnes told the committee that decision was made because the meat was “tough” and there was a concern that the small children would choke on it.
There has been no sickness reported as a result of the “aged” pork. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says frozen meat remains safe indefinitely.
The main complaint about the old pork has been the smell, taste and overall quality. According to the USDA quality chart, uncooked meat and roast should only be stored frozen 4-12 months for best quality.
BOE chairman Chris Christian said Hawkins County students deserve better than the pork they were served last week.
“If we’ve got meat that’s been in the freezer since 2009, and this is 2015, we have no protocol at all in inventorying our freezers,” Christian said. “We, as a system, need to better document when our foods get here, how we’re going to use our foods, and make sure that we’re serving the best quality food that we can serve.”
Christian added, “I’m astonished that we didn’t have protocol in place to inventory our freezers before this happened. These protocols should have been in place just out of professionalism.”
The new frozen food policy was drafted by director of schools Steve Starnes after he was made aware of the pork situation last Thursday. Some aspects were already being implemented on Friday such as clearing all outdated foods from school freezers.
Other key elements of the new policy include bi-monthly school cafeteria freezer inventories.
Schools will incorporate the “date received” onto all inventory sheets along with the package date of each item. Schools will strictly adhere to all USDA guidelines and industry standards for the shelf life of frozen foods. Schools will also implement a “first in and first out” procedure for the use of all food items, and plan menus based on inventory analysis.
“Actually, the health inspector was at one of our schools when the roast was taken out of the oven, and was cooling before being put in the cooler,” Starnes said. “The health inspector looked at it, said it was fine, and the cafeteria actually received a 99 health score. To my knowledge there’s been no complaints other than one employee who contacted one of our county commissioners. She did not contact me.”
Starnes added, “Several of our cafeteria staff, several of our staff, ate the pork. One school said they ran out before fourth lunch was finished. Another said kids loved it and came back for seconds.”
The pork situation came to light after a cafeteria employee notified Hawkins County Commissioner Michael Herrell.
Herrell told the Times-News following Thursday’s meeting he wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. He said someone should have been held accountable, and disciplinary action should have been taken.
Child nutrition director Mandy Kenner sat beside Starnes during Thursday’s meeting. When offered an opportunity by the committee to speak Kenner declined.
Christian did, however, ask Starnes to study whether any school employees merit disciplinary action over this incident. Starnes will report his findings back to the BOE on May 7.
Board member Tecky Hicks said he’s eaten some “pretty rough stuff” in his life, but he wouldn’t eat 6-year-old pork.
“What would we have done if we had 1,000 sick kids,” Hicks said. “When I heard this, the first thing I did is what I do best — I prayed and said, Lord, thank you for keeping our kids safe.”