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Olsen Tries To Allay Parents' Fears Over Food Safety

An open forum for parents' concerns was dominated by recent problems with food safety issues in the Westford School District.

Following revelations over unsanitary conditions in a major food storage area for the Westford School System, Superintendent Bill Olsen and members of the School Committee met with a group of parents in an attempt to try and regain confidence in the district’s food safety standards.

Although the evening meeting was geared towards serving as an open forum for concerns of parents not usually able to attend similar meetings that had previously been only held during morning hours, parents in the forum quickly honed in on the issue and spent over an hour grilling Olsen on the issue.

The more than two dozen parents that filled the room in the Millennium Building behind the Abbot School seemed perplexed as to why Westford School District food service director Patti Donahue had not been fired, citing allegations that the unsanitary conditions found in the food storage area on Town Farm Road known as “The Barn” had been in place for several years, stating the belief that Donahue was either unaware or indifferent of the situation.

Although Olsen claimed responsibility for the incident, it appeared at many points throughout the evening that the assembled parents would not be able to regain trust that food served to the 3,000 students in Westford schools each day would be safe until Donahue was terminated for the situation regarding the Barn, as well as other shortcomings they saw in the school district’s food services, ranging from incidents where their children told them they were forced to eat cold hot dogs to concerns over the nutritional content of some meals.

Olsen continually challenged the allegations, citing that the district’s food services were exemplary compared to other area districts, and refusing to agree to Donahue’s termination, citing what he saw as the overall quality of Donahue’s tenure as well as the fact that she was currently on administrative leave due to severe illness.

Despite refusing to agree with many of the parents’ demands to terminate Donahue, Olsen understood that many parents within Westford will need to regain trust that their children are being served safe food at all district schools.

“We’ll keep doing whatever we can to improve the quality of the program and move forward with presenting a plan for standardized operating procedures to the Board of Health,” said Olsen.

The back and forth between the parents and Superintendent Olsen also included comments from members of the School Committee, who questioned why the Board of Health had frequently and randomly inspected school cafeterias in the past, but not the Barn.

Although not all parents in the audience were solely focused on the issue of food safety, some in the crowd, such as Wendy Brown, left the forum feeling as though their concerns would not be addressed.

“There are many issues that are present here, but the real issue is having the systems in place,” said Brown, who like most of the parents in the crowd cited support for Olsen on issues outside of food services. “For much longer than the issue of the Barn, this has been going on for a long time, and we should have a food service director that does the core requirements of their job, and that’s not what’s happening.” 

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