Last month, a water main that supplies water to Boston and dozens of surrounding communities broke, forcing everyone to boil water before it was safe for use. Six-thousand-student Lexington Public Schools was one of the entities affected. Nancy Wiseman, director of dining services for Chartwells in the district, says that although the ordeal was challenging, the district’s bio-security plan helped things go relatively smoothly.
How did the boil water order affect the foodservice department?
Basically we just changed the menu. We put it on the Web site so that the parents could know and we communicated that information to the principals so they could disseminate that to the students. The hardest thing for us was to eliminate all the fresh fruits and vegetables because we couldn’t really boil water and cool it down fast enough to wash the vegetables. We use a lot of fresh fruit here and we really couldn’t do that. The only fresh fruit we could use was pineapples because you don’t wash the outside of the pineapple before you cut it. We couldn’t take a chance on melons and washing them with contaminated water before cutting them. We took the safe route. We eliminated fresh fruit and vegetables and went with canned for the two days involved. We arranged to have bottled water dropped off at each nurses’ station to support any child who didn’t have bottled water from home.
I haven’t completed the analysis, but I don’t think it affected our sales very much. The kids still ate. Everything went along really well. We did change the entrées. We had more freezer-to-oven food. We didn’t use the steamer at all because I wasn’t sure about that. Even though it gets up to 180 degrees, I wasn’t going to take a chance on that. I wanted to stay away from all water.
How did you address food safety and sanitation concerns?
Our management staff went around to each school to show each one of our staff the importance of hand washing, because you had to wash your hands with the water and soap, rinse with bottled water and then you had to use a hand sanitizer and then put your gloves on. We went through it and made sure that everyone knew because we didn’t want any mistakes. We sanitized the sinks using the water, but we used a sanitizing solution and we took a reading every hour on the hour. We went around afterwards to make sure that everyone was indeed doing this. We use disposables so we didn’t have to worry about washing dishes.
The water main broke on Saturday afternoon. She started talking with the health department on Sunday. The water was safe Wednesday. On Tuesday, the press release said the water is safe and the main is fixed. But really you have to bleed the tanks. At home you might have a 40-gallon tank that you have to bleed for half an hour. We have a 400-gallon tank. On Tuesday we dropped off some water and people said we were all set. We told them to wait. Then we got a notice out that said do not use the water yet. We sanitized all the ice machines and flushed everything.
Did you have a disaster plan in place that could help during the situation?
We had been working on a bio-security plan in our district. We were in the process of gathering information if there were a critical event, so it worked very nicely in terms of the communication flow and how everything was supposed to happen. The health department in our town was fabulous. They communicated to me over the weekend so that we had a plan in place on Monday. We couldn’t have gotten more support from the district and the town. It was a good test run in terms of if there were an emergency how everything would flow.
Having been through this, what would you change in your disaster plan to better prepare for another water main break?
Everything worked very nicely. We got great guidance. Maybe to have more bottled water on hand would be a good thing. We carry quite a bit, but when you have nine schools and you disseminate it, it goes pretty quickly. That’s probably the only thing that I would want to do differently is to keep a stash somewhere. I know that when I worked in business and industry it was for a defense contractor and they wanted to always have a safe supply of water. We had a room for water and we would rotate it out every year because water has a long shelf life. They were probably in good shape with this crisis.
What advice can you offer to other foodservice directors if they find themselves in a similar situation?
The advice I would give is to really work at creating a team. Our facilities people, superintendent, assistant superintendent and our health department we meet fairly regularly. It’s a team approach. Even though I’m part of Chartwells, I’m still a part of the team here in Lexington. I think that’s critical. I was on the phone with the health department on Sunday. I had a few questions here and there, and they were just so responsive. We work at it. I think one of the most important things is to make sure I have a good relationship with the facilities people and the health department. Some people fear the health department. You shouldn’t.