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City Tech cafeteria deemed 'dirtiest in the borough', shut down

After City Tech’s main cafeteria was shut down by the NYC Department of Health for the second time this year, the college moved to terminate the contract with Canteen, the North Carolina-based operator of the campus eatery.

In a health department inspection on October 3, the cafeteria in the Namm Building earned 103 violation points – almost four times higher than the worst number listed on the city’s restaurant grading scale. It was the worst score of any restaurant inspected in Brooklyn that month, according to the weekly Brooklyn Paper, which dubbed the campus cafeteria “the dirtiest in the borough.”

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Other CUNY-based cafeterias appear to be in better shape, with the vast majority getting “A” grades from the Department of Health in 2011.

The health code violations at City Tech came after faculty, staff and students had complained to administration for the past year about the cafeteria’s problems: they say little to no action was taken.

“We continually brought up declining conditions in the cafeteria at labor-management meetings, but management just kept saying that things were improving,” said Kyle Cuordileone, associate professor of history and a member of the PSC chapter’s executive committee. To advocate for change, Cuordileone took photos of the poor food on offer, creating a PowerPoint presentation that documented the cafeteria’s problems.

The menu at the now-shuttered cafeteria read like a how-to for Type 2 diabetes: heavy on junk food, fried food and sugary drinks; no yogurt or juice; premade macaroni salad instead of green salad, etc. According to a 2010 report on food choice in CUNY cafeterias, a three-way contract required Canteen to “serve only Coke” at City Tech.

“Maybe on a handful of occasions I’d eaten there,” says Carole Harris, an English professor who arrived at City Tech in 2006, “but it just seemed so unappealing I started bringing my lunch.”

Through her writing classes, Harris learned that many students had similar reactions. “I’d give them an assignment to write a letter to the president,” Harris explained: the cafeteria’s problems were a common target.

After seeing no visible improvement throughout the Spring semester, the union chapter’s executive committee asked the administration to consider terminating Canteen’s contract.

Spring semester was also when Canteen ran afoul of the Department of Health. A late January health inspection of the cafeteria resulted in 63 violation points, thereby triggering two repeat inspections. The second such inspection, in June, resulted in 69 points – one infraction was not providing hand washing near food prep or in the bathroom – and led to the cafeteria’s first closure.

The second shutdown in October forced the administration to act. By the time of the labor-management meeting later that month, termination of Canteen’s contract was already in the works, Cuordileone recalls.

“The [health department’s] report was so stunning I couldn’t even read it all at first,” said PSC Chapter Chair Robert Cermele, who put it away for a time in order to digest the news. “Rodent droppings, ‘filth flies,’ workers smoking in the food prep areas – every conceivable violation.”

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Union members think that the health and sanitary issues and Canteen’s poor quality and service had a common source: bad management. “If it was so dirty outside on the tables where people are eating,” said librarian Tess Tobin, “then it’s not a surprise that the kitchen wasn’t kept up.”

City Tech’s Vice President for Administration Miguel Cairol emphasized that the health department issued violations and imposed fines on Canteen, not the college. Cairol added that it was the Auxiliary Enterprise Board (AEB), a private entity that is technically separate from the college’s administration, that “approved the existing food service, will approve the interim contract and [will] choose the replacement food service company.”

Cermele agreed that the AEB is responsible for monitoring vendors – but in his view, the college administration is ultimately responsible for overseeing the AEB.

Canteen’s statement offered little explanation: “Due to sanitary issues beyond Canteen’s control, both parties have mutually decided to terminate the dining and vending contract.” The company declined further comment.

The school has publicly announced that a new bidding process is underway – and there is concern among faculty, staff and students that they may not be consulted on the choice of a new vendor.

But after the events of the past year, union members and students are not willing to be ignored. “All we want,” said Cuordileone, “is a decent, clean cafeteria, with healthy food for the entire college community.” And they will be watching to see that they get it.