Video: School lunch safety

Dateline NBC
updated 5/1/2004 11:24:03 AM ET 2004-05-01T15:24:03

School lunches -- some 28 million -- are served up across the country each weekday. But there are growing questions about food safety in our nation's school cafeterias. Since 1990, more than 5,000 students and workers have gotten sick from eating what's been served in their lunchrooms. So Dateline decided to investigate. We asked more than 30 of the nation's largest school systems to open their cafeterias to our cameras. Just five said yes. During some surprise inspections, we found more than just food in the kitchen.

It was mid-March and smoked turkey was being served to students at Lafayette Elementary in St. Louis. Third-grader Bridgit Dunahee noticed something funny.

Chris Hansen: “What did it taste like to you?”

Bridgit Dunahee: “Weird, like I never had it before, and, like, it's yuck.”

Within minutes both student and teacher started to get sick.

Bridget: “It was about 15 minutes after I finished eating my meal. That is when I started getting really nauseous.”

Hansen: “And how did you feel? How did your stomach feel by that time?”

Bridget: “It felt all wobbly and stuff.”

So wobbly, Bridgit and many other children had to be carried out of the school and sent to the hospital.

The smoked turkey and potatoes were served throughout the St. Louis school system that day, but only the 45 kids and one teacher from that single school got sick, suggesting that the food was somehow contaminated by the time it reached the children in that one school cafeteria.

The incident highlights a growing concern. Just how safe are America's school cafeterias? And how much confidence can we have in the quality of the food being served to millions of our school children -- especially poor children who can't afford to bring their own lunch. For the last five months, Dateline followed health inspectors around the country to try to answer those questions. We pored over thousands of inspection reports from 10 of America's largest school districts and in some cases brought our cameras with inspectors on unannounced visits to schools. The findings are often disturbing.

Video: School lunch safety We started in the nation's capitol, one of many school districts operating on a tight budget with aging schools. We accompanied inspector Ronnie Taylor of the Washington, D.C., Health Department to three school cafeterias.

There were mouse droppings right under the food service steamers where students get their lunch. That's what's known as a critical violation, something that could make a child sick.

There were more critical violations at two of the other schools that we visited in Washington, D.C. At Ballou High School, just a few feet from where food was being served, a filthy drain posed another health hazard. But worse still was the mold Taylor found growing on food in a walk-in refrigerator there.

We showed our tape to two top Washington, D.C., school officials.

Hansen: “The mold was about that thick on those collard greens. That can't be good.”

Gregory Williams: “No, it's not.”

Hansen: “Do you find that acceptable?”

Clifford Cox: “Absolutely not. It was a case of someone putting something in there that should not have been put in there. It's personal food.”

Hansen: “Still wrong.”

Cox: “Absolutely wrong.”

The officials told us the mold was on food school employees prepared for their own use. But it still could have contaminated the food being served to kids, a critical violation. And what about the rodent feces under the food service line?

Hansen: ”Rodent feces in an area beneath where food is served.”

Williams: “I'd be interested to know what time of day that was.”

Hansen: “[The] video was taken shortly after lunch was served here at this particular high school.”

Cox: “Right, OK. And that's an issue you have to work on, on an ongoing basis. Rodents are a problem. If we find a problem we react to it.”

The next stop is Nashville, Tenn. On the days we accompanied inspectors in Nashville, they found one critical violation after another: an employee not washing her hands after eating her lunch. In another school, there was evidence of rodent infestation. The discovery was made at the very time school kids were filling their plates just a few feet away.

But one of the most serious violations inspectors in Nashville found was food being served to kids that was not hot enough, food being served well below the state required 140 degrees.

Jerry Rowland is the director of Nashville's Health Inspection Service.

Hansen: “When food is not warm enough, there can be bacteria, microbes and illness.”

Jerry Rowland: “If it's not hot enough and there's bacteria that's present, then it can multiply to the extent that it can cause illness.”

We also showed our tape of the rodent droppings to Jay Nelson, the head of Nashville's school lunch program.

Hansen: “Now, there's no way to put a happy face on that. You've got the rodent droppings underneath where food is being served to children. That can't be good.”

Jay Nelson: “When I go out and see that in schools, a manager is definitely aware that I'm serious that that's not going to happen again. And if I have to go through 126 schools to make that point, I will.”

The next stop was Phoenix. While inspectors in the Mesa school district didn't find problems with rodents, they did find critical violations with food temperatures in three out of the four school cafeterias we visited.

In one case, pre-cooked hamburgers not being kept hot enough to prevent bacteria growth – they were being kept at 111 degrees, nearly 20 degrees below what Arizona law requires.

In another Phoenix school district, inspectors found the tuna at the salad bar was not cold enough. School officials where the tuna was found improperly stored declined to go on camera.

As for those hamburgers that weren't kept hot enough, school officials in that district insisted they would not have made any children sick.

Hansen: “That was a critical violation.”

Loretta Zullo: “On that inspection at that time, yes.”

Hansen: “Could a child have gotten sick from it?”

Zullo: “No. They could not have.”

She says that the burgers were not out long enough to cause a problem, but that was cold comfort to the county health inspector.

Hansen: “If a school food service official said, ‘That's not a big deal, because those burgers were pre-cooked,’ you would say—“

David Ludwig: “So, that is a risk factor. Below 130 degrees is in that danger zone. And you will have bacteria that could grow.”

Hansen: “Is that something that could make a child sick?”

Ludwig: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

So we found serious, and possibly dangerous, violations at a handful of school cafeterias around the country. But hundreds of other schools we looked at had no critical violations at all. How concerned should you be about your child's school cafeteria? Did we just catch all these schools on a bad day? Or is it an even bigger problem than our video suggests? Dateline's visits to schools with health inspectors represent a snapshot in time, two or three days in which anything could go right or wrong in a school lunch room. So we decided to go back a few years and see whether school cafeterias across the country have been making the honor roll or flunking their health inspections.

To answer that question we obtained inspection reports going back at least two years for school cafeterias in 10 different cities, including the ones we visited with our cameras.

Washington, D.C.
Records show that what we caught on camera wasn't unique. Cafeterias there failed inspections 20 percent of the time.

Nashville, Tenn.
The failure rate for school cafeterias here, again was 20 percent.          

Phoenix, Ariz.
On average, inspectors find at least one critical violation 70 percent of the time. The most common is food not being the correct temperature.

Dateline reviewed thousands of reports to see how well school cafeterias performed in seven other cities across the country, checking on the so-called critical violations, which can make children sick.

St. Louis, Mo.
In St. Louis where 45 kids got sick last month, the number of critical violations rose 10 percent in the last three years mostly for problems with rodents and pests.

Dallas, Texas
Fifty percent of the time, inspectors find at least one critical violation, the most common: mice and pests.

Portland, Ore.
In the last year alone, 23 percent of the schools racked up critical violations, mostly for food surfaces not being clean.

San Diego, Calif.
Inspectors find major violations in school cafeterias 23 percent of the time, mostly for food temperature problems.

Tampa, Fla.
Seventy-five percent of the time, inspections produce at least one critical violation, mostly for cooking equipment not being clean.

Miami, Fla.
School cafeterias got an unsatisfactory rating 10 percent of the time. The most common problem is that food is not hot enough.

New York, N.Y.
We pored over thousands of inspection reports in New York City, home of the largest school district in the country. They showed that 30 percent of the time, inspectors find critical violations. The most common are cooking utensils not being clean, and mice in the kitchen.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin was so outraged by findings like these that he introduced the Safe School Food Act last year. We showed Sen. Durbin some videotape of what we found.

Sen. Dick Durbin: “It's disgusting.”

Hansen: “Hamburgers were 20 degrees cooler than what they should be.”

Sen. Durbin: “Someone has to blow the whistle. Stop the line and say, we're just not going to give it to the kids.”

Hansen: “[Droppings] right underneath where the food is being served.”

Sen. Durbin: “That's unacceptable. It's a source of real danger to the kids.”

Durbin's bill calls for better training for cafeteria workers and higher standards for those who supply food to the school lunch program.   

Sen. Durbin: “When families turn their kids over to schools there are certain things they expect… first and foremost, safety and protection, whether it's in the safety of the school building itself or in the food that's being served. And if they can't expect that of the school, that school has failed miserably.”

Don't expect to see Senator Durbin's law applied anytime soon to your children's school cafeterias. He says that right now, the bill is stalled in the Senate.

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