Most school cafeterias flunk - Health Dept.

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How safe is the cafeteria where your child eats? Records show problems were found at a number of Philadelphia public, charter and Catholic schools. (Daily News photo illustration)

WOULD YOU EAT at a restaurant where rodent feces dot the area where your food is being cooked?

How about a place where employees preparing your meal don't wash their hands or wear gloves? Better yet, a place where there's black mold in your ice?

Not too appetizing, is it?

But if your child is in school in Philadelphia, chances are she or he is eating every day in a lunchroom with similarly unsavory conditions.

More than half of the schools in the Philadelphia School District - 53 percent - failed their most recent health inspection, according to state Department of Agriculture records, while a staggering 66 percent of charter schools were out of compliance.

Of the 40 schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that were inspected last school year, 35 percent were out of compliance.

Some schools on the list were hit with as many as 20 risk-factor violations, ranging from mouse feces found on cooking utensils to food being stored next to chemicals.

Justin Carter, a recent West Philadelphia High School graduate, said he gave up eating school lunches long before he graduated. He said the news doesn't come as a surprise.

"It's atrocious," he said, recalling his food woes at his alma mater, which was hit with 10 violations last spring.

"They served chicken twice a week, and it wouldn't be cooked all the way through - it was soft and pink in the middle. The food worker would put it in a microwave for five minutes like that would make it better. It would be the same way every time."

Lunchrooms in other school districts around the region fared much better than in Philadelphia.

In Lehigh and Berks counties, for example, every school is in compliance, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Although not many local school districts have results posted online, eight of the 10 schools in the Chester Upland School District passed their latest inspection, while all four schools in the Springfield School District in Delaware County passed.

The reports are considered a "snapshot" of the day and time of the inspection, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In the city schools, violations included milk being stored at an improper temperature at more than a dozen schools to roaches and mice infestations at others.

At Philadelphia Academy Charter High School, on Tomlinson Road near Jamison Avenue, in the Northeast, a food server was seen cleaning the top of a service counter and letting the debris fall into a pan of french fries on a full-service line.

During an inspection in May, food workers at St. Ignatius School, 637 43rd St., had to be told by an inspector to remove a dead mouse and feces from storage shelves.

Violations like these are a concern because of the impact food-borne illnesses can have on students, said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

"The immune systems of students are not as strong as a healthy adult," he said. "So it's not only important to serve nutritious lunches, but make sure it's safe."

City health officials haven't reported any recent incidents of students getting sick with a food-borne illness - which can include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache and fatigue - as a result of cafeteria food.

Because of students' high susceptibility, district schools are inspected twice a year, said Palak Raval-Nelson, director of Environmental Health Services for the city's Health Department.

"The school district and schools that serve food actually do a fairly good job," she said.

She said that the main problem with district schools lies with outside vendors who provide milk and other prepackaged foods at the wrong temperature to 221 of the district's buildings.

Charters that serve food are inspected when a complaint is brought against a school, she said. Unannounced inspections of parochial schools in the city generally come once a year at random, said Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Mary Rochford, the superintendent for schools in the Archdiocese, said that their practice is to immediately correct any issues.

"The Archdiocese works hard to ensure that schools are in compliance and that we meet the highest standards," she said.

Doris Smith, president of the public-school cafeteria union, Local 634, didn't return numerous calls for comment.

In February 2009, the city switched to a risk-based inspection system that assesses facilities based on 27 categories that contribute to food-borne illness, including personal hygiene, employee health, source and temperature of food and protection from contamination. Since then, officials say they've seen an increase in the different kinds of violations inside schools.

The Philadelphia School District could have up to 3,000 health violations in a year, but many aren't considered critical, said spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"Sometimes reports include a food-safety certificate not hanging on a wall or a food-service worker who didn't understand policies or questions asked at the time [of the inspection]," said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of the district's Division of Food Services.

While such violations would not have been considered critical before, they are now because of tighter federal laws, Raval-Nelson said.

Even so, no school has ever had a violation egregious enough to be ordered closed under her tenure, she said.

That doesn't mean the violations wouldn't make your stomach churn while waiting in the line for your lunch.

Lincoln High School, on Ryan Avenue near Rowland, had 13 violations ranging from "black mold growing on the inside ledge of the ice machine" to food-prep items, including a slicer and can opener, being repeatedly used without being washed.

Down the street at Austin Meehan Middle School, mouse droppings rested on shelves and other storage areas, and an employee was seen helping himself to food he was preparing for students.

Meanwhile, in the bakery at Edison High, in North Philadelphia, mouse droppings were observed on a dough fryer and other food equipment.

Grasela noted that the age of the city's school buildings contributes to rodent and insect problems, but that the district's facilities department regularly "treats" schools to rid them of the pests.

 

He added that the district also provides professional development and training in customer service, safety and sanitation to food workers. And district policies and procedures are always changing to remain current with health codes.

Despite that, Dwight Parker, a seventh-grader at Jay Cooke Elementary, in Olney, which had five violations last spring, packs lunch to keep from eating at his school.

"It's nasty," he said of the food served at his school. "Sometimes [it doesn't] even taste like anything, and they find hair in the food."

 


CHECK ONLINE

Want to know what's going on in the kitchen where your child's lunch is being prepared?

Go to http://bit.ly/aAwQFD to search for food-safety-inspection reports for public and private schools in the city. Inspection reports are online for only a small number of local school districts outside the city.