Project on Public School Health Violations Wins IRE’s Best Student Investigation Award

  • By Newmark J-School Staff

Six reporters for the NYCity News Service at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY won  the 2018 award for “best student investigation” from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the nation’s leading non-profit organization for investigative reporting.

The award was for their work on “Food Plight,” which examined tainted food and unsanitary conditions in New York City’s public school cafeterias. The team included Pauliina Siniauer and Mallory Moench, with additional reporting by Rahimon Nasa, Nicole Rothwell, Jeremy Ibarra, and Lizeth Beltran.

Announced on April 9, 2019, the honor is the most prestigious for student investigative journalism.

After scouring reams of health inspection records for an investigative reporting class, the Newmark J-School students discovered that nearly half of New York City public school cafeterias were hit with at least one critical violation in 2017.

A closer look found that the four dozen schools with the worst inspections records largely serve students with the fewest resources. The most sickening cases included schools where 600 rodent droppings and 1,500 flies were found in food preparation and consumption areas — conditions that are breeding grounds for potentially dangerous food-borne illnesses.

The team relied on data obtained from the New York City Health Department under New York’s Freedom of Information Law to create an interactive graphic that parents can use to find violations at their child’s school.

The reporters also interviewed stakeholders from cafeteria union officials to politicians to children sickened after eating at schools slapped with violations.

“Food Plight” was produced in words, pictures, graphics, video, and audio by the school’s NYCity News Service. The project gained widespread attention, including reaction from Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city leaders.

“We’re going to hold cafeterias to a very high standard, and I will certainly look into what’s brought up in that report and make sure we’re going to do something bigger to address it,” de Blasio told WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer.

“Food Plight” also was cited in more than 20 other media reports. The investigation, conceived in an investigative reporting class taught by NBC’s Andrew W. Lehren and Reuters’ Benjamin Lesser, came as the city expanded its free lunch program to all 1.1 million students in the nation’s largest public school system.

The IRE award recognizes investigations done by a student team of four or more reporters. “Food Plight” has also been selected by the Associated Collegiate Press as Story of the Year, was a finalist for two Editor & Publisher awards, and won a Society of Professional Journalists award.

This is the second time that students at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism won the IRE award and the fourth time they’ve been finalists for the prize.