Millions of meals are served to students every year, but the kitchens those meals come from are only inspected twice a year by the health department.
Expired food, dead insects, and dirty equipment all in the same school cafeteria kitchens that serve our children every day - we are putting public school cafeterias under the microscope.
NBC29's Henry Graff spent time digging into the inspection reports for schools in Madison, Greene, Albemarle, Charlottesville, Fluvanna and Augusta counties. Every school division reviewed had both critical and non-critical violations. The reports offer the dirty details of what inspectors found.
Inside school kitchens, food preparation has to meet 54 strict state regulations. Twice a year state health inspectors go in unannounced and put cafeteria staff to the test.
Eric Myers, an environmental health supervisor for the Virginia Department of Health said, "We do encounter things from time to time."
Dozens of inspection reports obtained reveal a slew of critical violations in every school district from 2011 through 2013.
In March 2012, Johnson Elementary in Charlottesville was hit with a critical violation after inspectors found turkey that was six days past expiration. The division claims the bad food never made it to the tray.
"This particular incident in 2012, the manager would have caught that and removed it," said Jim Henderson of Charlottesville City Schools. "It was never served."
Fluvanna County Middle School was cited in September 2011 for not having a consume-by date on food. The high school missed the mark in January 2013 for having visibly dirty equipment.
Albemarle County has racked up 16 critical violations since 2011, the most of any division. Broadus Wood Elementary had marinara sauce seven days past expiration in October 2011 and salsa that was in the kitchen six days after it expired in September 2012. At Stone Robinson Elementary, staff was caught handling fruit with bare hands in March 2012. Stony Point Elementary had fish at the wrong temperature in March 2012 and the same issue with coleslaw in September of that year. Dead or trapped pests were found at Yancey Elementary in February 2013.
In Greene County, every school had a number of violations for expiration dates not placed on food; mostly for cheese and lettuce. "That was something I guess we failed to catch," said Deborah Brown of Greene County Public Schools. "We've made that adjustment now so that each pack is labeled and dated."
In Madison County, inspectors repeatedly caught employees at the high school not washing their hands in September 2011 and October 2012. In April 2013, one employee did not wash their hands before prepping food at Waverly Yowell Elementary. On October 16, inspectors also found baked beans that should have been thrown out October 8. That same day they found rice which should have been thrown out October 4.
Augusta County saw similar issues, including expired Caesar dressing and students touching muffins with bare hands.
When inspectors find violations, they are separated into two categories: critical and non-critical. A critical violation is something deemed that if it isn't corrected could cause foodborne illnesses. Corrective action for these is taken right way. Non-critical violations could include maintenance issues. One example would be a broken exterior door window screen that could let pests inside.
Inspectors work with schools to correct the issues when they are found and can pull the food if inspectors believe it is dangerous.
"The food service places in our schools are some of the best places."Myers said. "We want to give them the tools to employ that active manager control when we're not there."
"We are excited that the state has taken on the fact of being a little bit more proactive." Deborah Brown of Greene County Schools said. "Anything we can do to make the food better, the service better is what we're out for."
Charlottesville overhauled its program in the spring of 2012, adding training and new staff inside cafeterias.
Between 24 school cafeterias and more than 13,000 students, Albemarle County Schools Food Services Director Christina Pitsenberger is responsible for 1.3 million meals served each school year.
"Any violation is taken seriously," she said. "On inspection, if there is a violation there is immediate, corrective action."
Pitsenberger says they work on a plan to make sure it doesn't happen again. "Safety is of the utmost importance in our program; all employees hired go through a training process."
Millions of meals go out each year, in cafeterias all across the state, so health inspectors say regardless of these violations they would gladly sit down to lunch at any of our school cafeterias in central Virginia.
"We really try to operate out of an educational standpoint. We feel like we have a good relationship with the county schools." Myers said. "I would eat in any of the schools."
To check out other school districts not reviewed in this story, visit the Virginia Department of Health's food safety website.
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