Wake County Environmental Services inspects school cafeterias three to four times a year. And what they find is enough to make your skin crawl.
NBC-17 Investigates started digging, and the stacks of violations kept on growing. This past September alone, inspectors found that 60 percent of district schools had what they consider to be “critical violations”.
That means they had problems serious enough to pose an immediate health risk.
One of the schools with years of critical violations was Apex High School. Since 2008, the school has been cited for a number of problems, from freezer leakage contaminating bags of food, to mold and dust in the ice machine.
Other schools have been cited for making cleaning solution so powerful it could be toxic.
NBC-17 spent days reviewing online inspection records for Wake, Durham and Cumberland County schools. They’re listed on the county health department websites.
The most common violations in each county were food not being kept at proper temperatures or expired all together.
It’s a problem that occurs year after year, inspection after inspection.
Frances Breedlove, who supervises the Wake County inspectors, said, “It’s not something they do intentionally. It’s an oversight.”
Asked if there needs to be more oversight at these schools, Breedlove said, “I bet they would say they need more people. We would like more people to inspect these facilities more often.”
Marilyn Moody oversees facilities for 157 kitches in Wake County Public Schools.
“We look at it individually, we look at the equipment in the school, the age of the school,” said Moody. She continued, “To make a blanket statement that 60 percent is too much — that’s not relevant to us.”
Asked if more work needs to be done to prevent problems, Moody said, “That’s why we have a job.”
Even with pages of yearly violations, NBC-17 found most schools in each county still end up getting a high overall grade.
Wake County schools average in the high 90s.
“That’s a very high score, if you compare it to restaurants,” said Moody.
But health officials say policing school lunchrooms is even more important as elementary school children are as vulnerable to illness as the elderly.
Wake County says training is increased when a school receives a critical violation. And all kitchen employees must take sanitation courses every three years.
“We’re always in schools. Always doing our own oversight, and we cooperate with the health department,” said Moody.
Serving more than 140,000 students certainly comes with challenges. But parents like Yvette Moses expect the food to be safe. Asked if it bothered her to hear that one violation included, “bag of french fries stored under leakage from freezer,” she said, “Wow.”
Does that bother you?
“Yes, very much so,” she said.
She and others hope more cafeteria oversight is part of this year’s curriculum.