New city, new (ad)ventures

It’s time I move this site into line with reality. I left Ohio journalism at the end of May, after exactly a year with the Springfield News-Sun and, sporadically, the Dayton Daily News.

Since I had accepted an offer to be Springfield’s permanent city hall reporter only a month earlier, my colleagues were surprised to hear my decision. When I told them where I was going — Chicago — they all smiled. (All but those tasked with ensuring the paper’s coverage.)

It would have been an honor to cover government in a city with such an important past. But after talking to several older friends whose bylines appear in places I covet, I found I had probably taken what I needed from the Ohio position. Anything else was just gravy. I needed to cast a wider net.

It helped that my wife got a job offer in Chicago at an exclusive hotel downtown, and that I scored part-time work in a kick-ass restaurant. More on that later.

But now, as dust settles in a one-bedroom in the Logan Square neighborhood, my desk is coming into shape. My magazine subscriptions will soon roll in. And I’ll be writing about what I want to write, in the timeframes I want to write.

It was scary to leave the pension, the 401(k). But if I was gonna do what would tickle my soul, I had to.

Below is the trailer for a forthcoming documentary produced by some good blokes from nearby Wilmington, Ohio. My sentiments exactly, boys. My sentiments exactly.

Next year, pink slime on fewer school menus

In this followup story to last month’s pink slime exposé (see previous post), I show it’ll be harder for schools to get their hands on products that contain “lean, finely-textured beef.” But not impossible.

If a school here doesn’t use its buying co-op to order its cafeteria meat, and it doesn’t ask the company that does its ordering (say, GFS) to avoid pink slime, they may still get it.

But good news for anti-pink slime people: if schools make sure they order with the same codes as last year, USDA will ensure those products are pink slime-free for next school year. So it’s a lot easier to avoid it.

I’m still trying to obtain a list from the Ohio Department of Education as to which districts in the state ordered pink slime beef and which didn’t. All USDA commodity orders go through ODE.

So-called “commodities” represent about 60 percent of beef schools buy — though poorer schools often hover hear 100 percent commodities, and richer schools might be assumed to avoid pink slime anyway… so the ODE’s tally should be a pretty accurate list of who buys pink slime and who doesn’t.

I’m especially proud that my description made it into the final cut of the story:

The substance has been added to most ground beef for at least a decade but has come under fire this year since a news story detailed how it’s made. The fat is melted out of fatty animal scraps, and what’s remaining, including connective tissue, is pressed together and mixed into ground beef to make it cheaper and leaner.

Beef producers not forthcoming about ‘pink slime.’ In southwest Ohio anyway, I put a stop to that.

Lean, finely-textured beef, AKA pink slime. Creative Commons-licensed photo courtesy of Flickr user pennstatelive.

Journalism, if anything, is reading documents carefully. Especially when they come from corporations with big public relations budgets.

With this story — whose fallout I’ll probably continue to report in the coming weeks — I throw a wrench in what, at best, were corporate oversights with favorable consequences. At worst, they were calculated plans to deceive school programs that feed kids. Often the poorest kids.

Chicago Tribune reporters had uncovered the same situation in that city. But I had no idea about it until my report was done.

I’ll paste the first few graphs here, but I’d appreciate it if you read the story on the paper’s site, and even commented on Facebook if you have the time.

-Brandon

Schools feel misled about ‘pink slime’

News-Sun investigation prompts more scrutiny about beef schools buy

By Brandon Smith-Hebson

For weeks, local school districts told the public they don’t serve food containing the controversial beef product known as “pink slime.”

Turns out they probably do.

A Springfield News-Sun investigation revealed that districts and food vendors may have been inadvertently misleading the public. Three key beef suppliers to schools acknowledge using what detractors call pink slime in some of their products.

After asking more questions of the suppliers, a few school districts have changed their menus.

“They were telling the truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is how I feel,” said Chris Ashley, director of Springfield City Schools’ meals program.

Two months and four hundred handwritten pages later…

Larry Shaffer, health inspector for the Clark County Combined health district, washes his hands before starting his inspection at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. Clark County health inspections reveal some dire situations in the area’s commercial kitchens. Photo by Bill Lackey, used courtesy of the Springfield News-Sun.

Here’s my front-page story today on restaurant inspections. It was quite the ordeal. I got to draw on my previous experiences in the kitchen, and I had to keep editors abreast of the project throughout its two months of reporting.

I was asked to write a short piece on how it all came together, so I’ve pasted that after the jump.

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