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Dateline NBC
updated 5/1/2005 6:56:33 PM ET 2005-05-01T22:56:33

The number of meals served to students in school cafeterias around the country is staggering -- more than six billion a year. That's a mountain of burgers, fries, chicken nuggets and pizza, no easy task. No matter what the number though, parents hope that every one of those meals be nutritious and safe, prepared in a clean environment. That is exactly what children are getting, according to Mary Kate Harrison of the school nutrition association.

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Mary Kate Harrison: “Our record shows that we're serving safe quality nutritious food every single day.”

That may be, but just six months ago Dateline went along with health inspectors on unannounced visits to school cafeterias across the country and found a host of problems. In some of the schools, those problems included food temperature violations, the presence of mice, broken glass and even bugs mixed in with food.

Some of those schools show signs of improvement, but once again, Dateline wanted to follow health inspectors with our cameras to some public school districts we'd never been before. Most school districts said no, but a few, who felt they had nothing to hide, said yes. There were some encouraging signs of schools with well run cafeterias, but the record was far from perfect.

Health inspectors are still finding plenty of critical violations, the kind that can make food go bad and make our kids sick

Chris Hansen: “Is it fair to expect that a school cafeteria has a perfect inspection every time?”

Harrison: “I think that's what we ought to be shooting for. Every single school ought to be-- ought to have as a goal a perfect inspection.”

Our first stop is Fairfax County, Va. This wealthy suburb outside Washington is where many of the government elite live. Dateline cameras followed inspector Kristin Redfern to six schools. Fairfax schools passed temperature checks with flying colors. Hot food was always hot enough to kill the bacteria that could make a child sick.

But the inspector did find other problems. In two of the six schools we visited, sneeze guards were missing on the serving lines.

Hansen: “Will you eat at a buffet that did not have a sneeze guard?”

Jennifer Berg: “I absolutely wouldn't. Neither would my children.”

NYU professor and food safety expert Jennifer Berg says sneeze guards are critically important.

Berg: “Coughing, sneezing, that is such a quick way to pass bacteria and infection that they're carrying into the food.”

One critical violation the inspector found was dented cans in two schools. A dented or swollen can, especially one with a broken seal, could lead to the growth of dangerous bacteria inside the can.

Berg: “When you're talking about feeding young children, you can't take any risks.”

Penny McConnell: “I've never served food from a dented can. And we never have in Fairfax county.”

Even so, Penny McConnell, the director of food services for Fairfax County schools told us she recently sent out a reminder to food handlers to make sure they throw away dented cans. She also said sneeze guards will be in place by the fall, now that the health department is enforcing that rule.

But for all six schools we went to, inspectors only found six critical violations in Fairfax County. That puts the schools among the best Dateline has visited.

Penny McConnell: “No violation from a health inspection is benign. Even if it's corrected on the spot, it requires retraining so it doesn't occur again.”

Our next stop Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby. School and health officials say the school lunch program here is rarely cited for critical violations. At the first school we went to, Atherton High, they are doing well. Food temperatures were on target, employees were washing their hands to kill germs before handling food, not even a dented can was found.

But on closer examination, inspector Leslie Jenks spotted some disturbing sights. Under the kitchen sink were roaches, all dead, but a sure sign of a pest problem. The inspector then checked the dry storage area, many times a haven for vermin. Once again, the inspector found what she called, an "uninvited guest." It appeared to be a mouse.

Hansen: “And what's the potential that that kind of a rodent presence could make a child sick?

Berg: “They're scurrying on counters, they're near cutting boards, leaving little droppings. If they're not noticed droppings getting into food. Could absolutely make children sick.”

In Louisville, food establishments from restaurants to school lunch rooms are required to post the letter grades given by inspectors. And in Louisville school cafeterias, just like in the classroom, getting a "C" is not a good thing, especially when you got an "A" last time. But three of the six schools we went to were at the top of the class with no critical violations at all, winning them straight "A’s.”

Marty Bell is a spokesman for Jefferson County schools.

Hansen: “But what about the other school where the roaches were found and the dead mouse?”

Marty Bell: “That happened from the time they inspected in the morning, by the time the inspector got there. The roaches should not have happened and caused us to respray as a result of it.”

Hansen: “But if we go back to those two schools six months from now, what will we find?”

Bell: “You'd better find A's hanging outside the door.”

In Kansas City, Mo., at Southeast High School, the first sign this would not be a good inspection was a bowl of rotting potatoes. And on the food service line, item after item was being served below the proper temperature. In Missouri that's 135 degrees. In fact, some hot food was about 20 degrees too low. Apparently, some of the steam tables were broken and not giving off enough heat to kill dangerous bacteria.

In another school in the district, it was the opposite problem. The milk was too warm. It should have been 41 degrees to prevent bacteria growth that could make a child sick.

Berg: “The people who are to blame are the people at the top, the people who were responsible for training everybody.”

Hansen: “How would you feel if you were a parent in that school district?”

Berg: “If I was a parent in that school district, I would not want my children eating that food.”

Back at Southeast High, apparently the kitchen had more than just students eating in the cafeteria. There were mouse droppings. And there was certainly the potential for contamination there, with a dead mouse and evidence of a hole. And it wasn't just one mouse that was using that hole. There were two on that trap, and a third in another trap. And then the inspector saw another critical violation almost immediately.

The cafeteria worker who had just picked up the glue board with the mice, didn't wash his hands before carrying fresh food into the cooler, which is exactly how germs and bacteria can be spread.

Berg: “If I was the health inspector I would shut down that kitchen.”

Edwin Birch is a spokesman for the school district.

Hansen: “How do you feel seeing that as an official with the Kansas City school district.”
Edwin Birch: “It really kind of tears you apart. We have the duty and the privilege of trying to maintain the safety of students in our school environment, but we also have to do it in our cafeterias where they come and eat, as far as the health concern.”
Hansen: “I've got to tell you, that of all the schools we visited on this trip, Kansas City was the worst.

Birch: “Kansas City? We were the worst? That is very disheartening. It won't continue. You come back to Kansas City and visit those schools, you won't see that again.”

We've heard that kind of promise before from officials at schools we visited in our last story, back in October 2004. Were those promises kept and those cafeterias have been cleaned up?

Twice we had been to the nation's capitol and on our second visit, school cafeterias had dramatically improved. But some violations just wouldn't go away. The two times, we visited Ballou High School with inspector Ronnie Taylor, we found mice droppings right below where food was served. At that time, a D.C. official promised that six months later we would be able to “eat off the floors.”

In spite of that appetizing invite, Dateline was crossed off the list this time around. The man in charge of Washington cafeterias wrote us saying we couldn't come back because our visit..."would be too disruptive and could add to the lowered morale of the...staff who work very hard to provide breakfast and lunch in a wholesome environment every day."

It seems like a missed opportunity for D.C. schools though, because in reviewing the most recent inspection report for Ballou High School, in fact, the school has improved. Inspectors found no mouse droppings under the food service line.

Detroit, the motor city wanted to toot its horn about how much better it was doing. Last fall, food at Rosa Parks Elementary wasn't hot enough and brand new ovens couldn't be plugged in to reheat food. Today, circuit breakers are installed and ovens are piping hot. In fact, during our recent visit, the school had no critical violations at all.

At another school last fall, employees had nowhere to wash their hands, a critical violation. Shortly after our visit, a new sink was installed. And while a number of schools had rodent problems before, this time there wasn't a creature stirring in all of the five schools we returned to. But have Detroit schools been able to correct serious temperature violations we found last fall? The answer unfortunately is no.

Which is what the inspector found this time around, macaroni and cheese not heated properly. One cafeteria manager even failed the test when asked what the proper temperature was for hot food.

In many Detroit schools Dateline visited recently, kitchen thermometers were not working properly. In one kitchen, normally a hot place to begin with, a handheld thermometer used to measure food temperatures was showing the air temperature about 50 degrees too low.

Berg: “If those thermometers were registering 20 degrees in a kitchen, if nobody picked up on it, that says that they're really probably not trained at all.”

At another kitchen, the milk cooler thermometer wasn't working. Not surprisingly, the milk in the cooler was not as cold as it was supposed to be. One school official argued that the problem must be with the inspector's thermometer, not the milk.

Robert Brown is the director of the Detroit school lunch program.

Hansen: “How can your people make sure that food is kept at the right temperature if they don't have working thermometers?”

Robert Brown: “We just have to be more diligent of making sure that the thermometers are working and some of that is training as well. I think if you check the logs with the Health Department and their normal visits, there have been fewer critical violations this year than at any time in recent history.”

In fact, a review of Detroit health inspection reports last fall showed that inspectors found at least one critical violation 61 percent of the time. Since then, the number has now dropped to 40 percent.

In Nashville, Tenn., Dateline had gone to the country music capitol schools twice before and the violations actually were worse the second time around. School officials were hoping the third time would be the charm. In September, we saw bits of broken glass mixed in with fruit in the cooler. This time, the cooler was fine.

At another high school last fall, there were bugs chewing on a bag of flour. Needless to say the school flunked its inspection. The school’s latest inspection report showed not a bug in sight. Last September, we found hamburgers and pizza severely undercooked, 70 to 80 degrees below the correct temperatures.

In our most recent visit, Nashville still had some food temperatures violations, but nowhere near as extreme as before. The last time we visited Nashville mice were a problem, especially at McGavock High where the inspector found dead mice rotting in a trap. Unfortunately for kids at that school, in the same area, there are still signs of mice.

We showed our video to Jay Nelson, the head of food services in Nashville.

Hansen: “How concerned are you about what we just saw there?”

Jay Nelson: “I'm concerned about that, Chris. But we're not seeing, as in previous visits, mice droppings out in the serving lines. No excuse. We're at least getting it to the back of the house now.  Pretty soon we'll take care of the entire problem.”

Critical violations for Nashville schools have decreased since our visit last fall, especially after the health department started targeting problem schools. Back then, inspectors found critical violations 71 percent of the time. Since our fall visit that number has been cut to just 40 percent. Problem schools are now being inspected four instead of two times a year. Nelson says the change in the inspection schedule came about after Dateline's visits to Nashville schools.

Hansen: “You know, a lot of school districts this time around refused to let us go along on inspections. Yet you did even after, you know, we saw some fairly significant problems. Why did you let us come back a third time?”

Nelson: “I certainly don't want to be on national television and showing critical violations. But we have certainly improved and we certainly have cut our critical violations, which I think has been part of you being there.”

While Dateline's visits may have triggered changes in some schools, we wanted to get a more complete picture of how schools are doing when our cameras re not rolling.

So we examined thousands of inspection reports from the last two years.

Our latest review showed some school districts close to the goal of perfect inspections, but others still have a long way to go.

Dateline's visits to school cafeterias with health inspectors are just a snapshot on one given day in which a lot can go right or wrong. Of the 29 schools Dateline went to this time around, 26 had critical violations, the kind that can lead to food borne illness in children. To get a fuller picture, we asked 10 cities around the country, some we had visited and some we had not, to send us health reports for unannounced school inspections for the past two years.

These are the findings based on the reports they sent us, some reports show more than one critical violation.

In one school, our cameras found roaches and a dead mouse. But after reviewing two years of documents, we discovered that only three percent of school inspection reports showed critical violations -- a remarkably low number.

Hansen: “Over the last two years out of 669 inspections, there were only 33 critical violations.”

Bell: “We're very proud of the fact that our people are well trained so that they know how food has to be served.”

It was a different story in Fairfax County, Va., where we found few critical violations during our visit. Records show that in 59 percent of its inspections, Fairfax schools have at least one critical violation, most often for keeping food at the wrong temperature.

Hansen: “Does it surprise you that when we went back and looked in special reports for two years that the most common violation was temperature violations?”

McConnell: “It disappointed me.  Did it surprise me?  No, because that's been a very, very, very difficult training issue.”

Kansas City, Mo., was the school district with the most critical violations during our recent visits. Was it just unlucky that day? Or was what we saw part of a larger pattern?

Birch: “I would have liked to think that what we have seen today is not a reflection on most of our cafeterias in our schools.”

But it turns out that Kansas City school cafeterias didn't fare much better when we looked at their performance over time. Seventy percent of the time, inspectors find at least one critical violation during unannounced visits. In fact, many schools have two or three. We also examined two years of inspection reports from four cities that declined to allow Dateline cameras into their schools.

Birmingham, Ala.: 35 percent of the reports show critical violations.
New Orleans: At least one critical violation in 42 percent of the reports.
Minneapolis: “Health inspectors found at least one critical violation 48 percent of the time.
Washington, D.C.: In the fall, inspection reports showed a critical violation 88 percent of the time, the highest of any school district we'd seen.

Their record has improved, but still has a long way to go. Reports show critical violations dropped to 74 percent since the new year.

As we've done before, we shared the results of our investigation with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. As a result of Durbin's efforts, federal law now requires schools to have at least two inspections a year and  they must also have a plan in place to decrease lunch room violations.

Sen. Dick Durbin: “Give credit to Dateline. You got the ball rolling. You brought it to my attention and I think created some momentum for us to make some legislative changes that can help too... We have to demand that every kid, every vulnerable, innocent kid who goes to school, has a safe school lunch.”

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