Inspecting school cafeterias

How clean are school lunchrooms?

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - You send your kids to school everyday to eat lunch, but how often are inspectors checking up on the cafeteria that prepares that food? 3 times every school year--and they come in with a long list of things to examine.

"We're making sure that any risk factors for an outbreak of food illness are addressed," says Jane Snow, one of the inspectors from the Jefferson County Health Department.

Inspectors like Snow have certain high-priority items they're looking for that carry a bigger penalty if they're not addressed. Things like having enough soap and towels so workers can wash their hands, and making sure foods are either cold enough (below 41 degrees) or hot enough (above 135 degrees) to stop bacteria from growing because one dirty set of hands can turn pizza day into a major problem.

"Any time you have a large group, any type of situation like that, yes that's a concern and we want to make sure that everything is in place to keep the children as healthy as possible." Snow says.

We searched the database of every school inspection in Jefferson, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa counties and found every school scored in the 90's ---a passing grade. But that headline number can be deceiving because one major violation like a rodent infestation is only a 4 or 5 point deduction--and a series of minor violations that can add up to major problems may only be 1 point each, meaning even a score of 94 or 95 could be masking problems.

The only way to know for sure is to request the full report from your health department because the state database only shows you the headline number.

"Everybody has problems, nobody's perfect," Snow says. "Every facility has problems. It's a matter of how they handle it, do they try to prevent problems, and do they know what do when there is a problem. And that makes a lot of difference."

Inspectors only look at common areas like water fountains, bathrooms, and hallways in schools once every calendar year, and there's no scoring system for those inspections because there aren't any firm state regulations on cleanliness in those areas. Inspectors simply look for things like missing paper towels or rodents, and if they do find major problems they can follow up, but you might not ever know the problem existed in the first place unless it requires major action.

Inspectors say will do extra visits and inspections if they get complaints from the public---so you can be your own best advocate for a clean school by looking out for things like roaches, rodents, mold, plumbing or sewer leaks and leaking ceilings.

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