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How safe is school cafeteria food?

Dateline Nbc
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It was a story that opened some eyes and turned some stomachs, a Dateline investigation into the food being served to millions of children in America's school cafeterias. Last spring, we took our cameras into some of the nation's largest school systems to check the safety of lunchroom meals. What we found in some schools was less than appetizing -- a number of critical safety violations. So this fall, we brought our cameras back. What did we find?

When America's 53 million students marched into school this year, the cafeterias that feed them once again started serving the burgers, hot pockets and chicken wings that fuel the learning day.

And when school cafeteria staffs don't take that responsibility seriously enough, kids can get sick. Already this school year there are apparent cases of food born illness in some of our nation's schools. In New Jersey, at least seven students and a teacher fell ill with salmonella poisoning. In St. Louis, officials still haven’t figured out why 45 children and a teacher got sick after eating cafeteria food last March. Some had to be taken to the hospital. There have been no problems at the school so far this fall. These are isolated incidents.

Jennifer Berg is the director of New York University’s food studies program and teaches safety practices to those in the food industry.

Chris Hansen: "You know, kids aren't falling over sick every day in America's schools.  Is this really that big of a problem?"

Prof. Jennifer Berg: "Now, people say that all the time.  But that's-- that's Russian roulette with kids' health and their lives."

With that in mind, Dateline once again returned with local health inspectors, following them on their routine unannounced visits to schools around the country. Our cameras were there when inspectors found critical violations, the kinds of things that could make a child sick. Our first stop is America's heartland, in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City inspector Troy Skow took us to a newly renovated high school. Remember, the inspector was on the lookout for critical violations. It didn't take long for him to find them, including the most serious, food temperatures that allow dangerous bacteria to grow. Hamburgers should be kept to at least 140 degrees to prevent bacteria. One burger Skow checked was being held almost 20 degrees too cold.

Hansen: "if a food product is just, say, seven degrees off, is that enough to have bacteria that can make a kid sick?"

Prof. Berg: "The bacterial growth goes on constantly. And it replicates faster and it replicates exponentially. So if it's seven minutes, it's here. If 14 minutes, it's doubled. It keeps doubling. And so the longer it sits out at a temperature… the more dangerous it gets."

Oklahoma City school officials didn't want to talk on camera, but instead sent this statement:

"We find what occurred ...during your recent visit, to be unacceptable.  Our expectation is that each and every one of our cafeterias achieves a perfect inspection."

They also assured us the problems have been fixed.

Our next stop is Detroit, the motor city. In many of the schools here, which average 80  years old, there is not even a full working kitchen to cook the food. Instead, the food is cooked off site. One of those schools that gets its food from a large central kitchens is Rosa Parks Middle School, the second school we visited. The inspector found the turkey and burritos, both cooked off site, were well below the required 140 degrees to kill harmful bacteria. The school did get new heating ovens this summer, but they still had not been installed weeks after school started.

In the end, the Health Department determined the food was safe enough to be served within a four hour period, and whatever was left over had to be immediately thrown out. It was a crisis averted, but still a critical violation.

These old Detroit schools buildings also create other problems. At one of six we visited, the gymnasium was converted into a lunch room. Here, the inspector found it impossible for cafeteria workers to practice good hygiene. Workers must have easy access to soap and hot water to thoroughly wash their hands. Here again, the school was cited for a critical violation. The inspector ordered the kitchen, one of two in the school, closed. Within days of our visit a sink was installed in the school.

Robert Brown: "We're not gonna be satisfied, we're not gonna be content, until we have everything done the right way, every single day."

Robert Brown who runs food services for the city says Detroit has spent $10 million renovating old kitchens,  installing new equipment, things like ovens and sinks. Two days after our visit to Rosa Parks Middle, the ovens were finally hooked up.

Hansen: "If these things can be corrected so quickly after our visit, then why weren't they corrected before?"

Brown: "When you're dealing with a district that has the number of old buildings it has, unfortunately, you have to accommodate. Those are a lot of challenges."

Our travels also took us South to Charlotte, N.C. At Berryhill Elementary, a Charlotte health inspector discovered yesterday's macaroni and cheese was still caked on today's dishes. Apparently, the dishwasher didn't do its job, a critical violation because left over food can carry bacteria. At a third school, food was being kept at \ proper temperatures, dishes clean, but flies were everywhere, especially on the food service line where children lined up to get lunch, and feasting on a piece of sweet potato pie.

Prof. Berg: "That's not all that fly was doing on that pie. They're probably the most hazardous, in the sense of actually what they give."

Hansen: "The most hazardous."

Prof. Berg: "Where do flies stay? They stay over garbage. They're attracted to feces.  That's what they eat."

Hansen: "Again, unappetizing, but can it really make a kid sick?"

Prof. Berg: "That absolutely can make a kid sick."

Charlotte school officials said these violations were an exception, but declined to go on camera. However, in a statement they wrote that they train their cafeteria staff to keep them "informed and aware of the high expectations for our child nutrition program."

After visiting these schools, we wondered about those cities Dateline visited last school year, cities where inspections turned out poorly. Surely they must be doing better now. Or are they?

When school bells rang this fall, Dateline returned to three cities we had visited last spring. Back then, we followed health inspectors who found serious violations in their schools. We wanted to see if the schools report cards for health inspections would improve.

In one Phoenix school last March, tuna salad wasn't cold enough. It’s supposed to be 40 degrees or below to prevent the growth of bacteria. Of the six schools we visited this fall, inspectors only found one example of food being kept at the wrong temperature. But in our most recent visit, there were other violations that disturbed inspector Suzie Sid -- like the huge hole in the wall, an invitation for mice to stop by, have a bite and spread germs. We showed our tape to David Ludwig, of Maricopa County's health department.

Hansen: "Stuart Little could have walked through there."

David Ludwig: "That looked like a pretty big hole."

Hansen: "Now there's no one who's going to argue that it's okay to have rodent feces in a kitchen area.  But what is the real danger in terms of people getting sick?"

Ludwig: "It's regarding things like salmonella or other things that the rodent might carry and pass on."

Kathy Getz runs food services for Phoenix elementary schools which, like all school districts, faces an enormously complicated task. How to safely feed thousands of kids and make sure every cafeteria worker gets it right. in the end she says it comes down to priorities.

Hansen: "Does it make you angry to see that in one of your kitchens?

Kathy Getz: "What makes me angry is fighting the battle for just a few education dollars to train my staff."

Washington, D.C. inspector Ronnie Taylor took us back to a high school we had visited last winter. That school has been cited for chronic food safety and sanitation violations. One particular thing that disgusted Taylor last February was the mold found growing on collard greens. A cafeteria worker brought them in for lunch but they could have contaminated students' food. This time the food in the cooler checked out okay. But along with the good news, Taylor found some bad. Mice were a problem here last winter when Taylor found droppings right below where food was served. When we went back again in September, the same food service line still showed signs of mice, although fewer than what we found in February.

And something else inspectors found just weeks ago in D.C. schools, food not hot enough. Even in a school with brand new kitchens and ovens, the temperatures of chicken wings registered way too low posing another health threat. School officials amazed us when they revealed that until recently, some schools didn't even have the means to check how hot food was being kept. Top Washington school officials assured us the thermometer shortage has been fixed, and other improvements are being made.

D.C. School Official: "What we done about two weeks ago is we bought thermometers for every single school. And, those should be in place now."

Hansen: "How expensive could a thermometer be though? Wouldn't it be common sense that every school should already have a thermometer so they can check the food?"

D.C. School Official: "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Other D.C. School Official: "There really is no excuse. Our new superintendent has made it very, very clear that people will be held accountable. They will be dismissed if they're not doing their jobs."

Nashville is the country music capitol, but health inspectors found school cafeterias hitting some sour notes last spring. Like Washington, Nashville schools corrected some of the problems we found last time. And unlike last year, there were no mouse droppings under food service lines. But mice still roam other parts of some Nashville school cafeterias.

But the Nashville school district had its most serious problems with food temperatures, worse than any other city we visited. When checking hamburgers, one of the most dangerous foods if not cooked thoroughly and held at 140 degrees, inspector Steve Crosier couldn't believe his eyes as the thermometer needle fell. It finally bottomed out at around 78 degrees.

Hansen: "How quickly does bacteria grow, bacteria that could make a kid sick at 78 degrees?"

Prof. Berg: "It grows really, really quickly. 78 degrees, 110 degrees, these are optimum temperatures for bacteria. Not for us."

Cold pizza may be a staple around college dorms, but health officials say it could pose a danger for a young child if not kept at 140 degrees to kill bacteria. At 60 degrees the pizza was 80 degrees too cold.

Prof. Berg: "It is that cheese. It's almost like a Petri dish with bacterial growth."

At McGavock High, inspectors saw something a lot scarier than cold pizza -- shards of glass mixed in with fruit in a cooler. Apparently, the light shield, the metal cover that goes over the glass dome shield, fell.

Jerry Rowland, Health Director: "I can't remember the last time that I saw an inspection where there was glass inside a food in a school cafeteria or in a restaurant."

Inspectors also found a fifty pound bag of USDA-donated flour in a storage room infested with bugs. Jay Nelson is the head of food services for Nashville schools.

Hansen: "Don't the people look around and say, this needs to be cleaned. This has bugs. This is rotten. This is at the wrong temperature. Before kids come in to eat in these rooms?

Jay Nelson: "Chris, I would have fully expected that happens. But as we can see it doesn't."

Hansen: "How can you guarantee that the next time we come down here, we won't see some of these very same things?"

Nelson: "Chris I'd be a fool to guarantee you that you're not going to see some of the very same things.  What I want to see is our total scores of all the schools improving, and continually improving."

So did we just catch these schools on a bad day -- or a typical one? It seems in many cases, records show that around the country what we saw was not the exception, but more the rule. Dateline's visits to schools with health inspectors are just a snapshot in which a lot can go right or wrong in a school cafeteria. To be fair, seven out of the 31 schools we went to had no critical violations. But we wanted to know if, over time, schools had made the honor roll or flunked their health inspections.

To get a better picture, we asked the cities we visited to send us health inspection reports for school cafeterias during the past two years. These are the findings based on the reports they sent us. In Charlotte, N.C., where our cameras found dirty dishes, and flies in one kitchen. Inspectors found at least one critical violation 26 percent of the time when they inspected a school.

In Detroit, 60 percent of the time, inspectors found at least one critical violation when they inspected a school. And in Oklahoma City, inspectors found critical violations 64 percent of the time.

In the three cities we re-visited, we looked at inspection reports since the start of school a few months ago. In Phoenix, inspectors found critical violations 46 percent of the time in the Phoenix elementary school district.

Nashville inspectors found critical violations 67 percent of the time so far this school year. After our visit, Nashville's school superintendent wrote Dateline saying starting immediately, the health department will inspect problem schools four times a year instead of just two.

In Washington, inspectors have found at least one critical violation 84 percent of the time since school started. School officials promise that will improve.

As we did last school year, we showed the results of our investigation to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who has pushed for national health standards in America’s school cafeterias.

Hansen: "Your legislation's stuck in committee. You could argue that nothing has changed much from one school year to another."

Sen. Durbin: "It's a sad reality, but I'm sure it's true, and your videotape proves it. The sad reality is that innocent kids have their health and often their lives at stake."

Senator Durbin did succeed in getting one part of his legislation passed. From now on, states will have to report the findings of local school health inspections to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA will then monitor how well schools are doing and report its findings to Congress.