NASHVILLE, Tenn. - How safe is the lunch your child is getting at school?
NewsChannel 5 Investigates took a look at Metro Schools' cafeterias, and our investigation found a growing problem that could make your child sick.
School cafeterias are inspected just like restaurants, but there is one big difference between the two. Metro's cafeterias primarily just heat food that's already been prepared elsewhere. There's not a lot of actual cooking.
So school cafeteria scores do tend to be higher than many restaurants.
But our investigation discovered that doesn't mean there aren't problems.
More than 50,000 children in Metro eat school lunches every day. Parents expect the food to be healthy and safe.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates found health inspectors are routinely finding critical problems in Metro school cafeterias that could potentially make these children sick.
Food inspector Ivone Rodriguez explained her job as: "Essentially, what we want to do is protect the public's health."
Inspectors like Rodriguez say they try to teach cafeteria workers how to fix critical violations and, more importantly, avoid them in the future.
But we discovered that in the last three years, the number of critical violations in Metro Schools has grown significantly - 121 in 2009, 152 in 2010, and 216 in 2011.
In 2012, there have already been 169 critical violations found -- more than both 2009 and 2010 -- and inspectors haven't finished their inspections for the year yet.
As we plowed through piles of inspection reports at the Metro Health Department offices, we discovered that this year alone, inspectors have found moldy, rotten food on cafeteria shelves at Dan Mills and Kirkpatrick Elementary Schools.
They also discovered roaches, both dead and alive, at Bailey Middle School.
And in dozens of inspection reports, our investigation found schools cited for mice droppings.
This year alone, Sylvan Park, Stratton, Tom Joy, Cameron, and West End Middle have all been cited for mice droppings. In the kitchen at Pearly Cohn High School, inspectors not only found "fresh mouse droppings," they also found a dead mouse.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Spencer Taylor, Metro's new school nutrition director, "Are these situations you think would need to be addressed?"
"Absolutely," he replied.
Taylor has been on the job now less than a month and is hesitant to criticize how Metro has handled food safety in the past.
"From what I've seen, I've seen way more good than I have seen negative," he said.
But look at the inspection reports and it's apparent Metro school cafeterias are having problems -- and the biggest seems to be keeping food at the proper temperature, something the Centers for Disease Control said is crucial, especially in schools.
"And, why is that so important with kids?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the Metro Health Department's Steve Crosier.
"They're more vulnerable to become ill," he explained.
That's why food temperature, Crosier said, is one of the things his inspectors focus on, making sure chilled foods are cold enough and hot foods are hot enough.
NewsChannel 5 repeatedly tried to follow health inspectors into Metro school cafeterias, but Metro Schools advised principals not to let our cameras in. Later, they invited us to watch a mock inspection.
So how hard is it for a school to keep food at the right temperature?
"To keep it hot, it shouldn't be difficult at all," Crosier answered.
Yet, out of 135 Metro schools, we found 113 of them have been cited at least once in the last four years for failing to keep food at the proper temperature.
More than half of them have been cited repeatedly.
Twelve schools have been cited at least four times in the last four years. Those schools are: Bailey Middle, Bordeaux Elementary, Brick Church Middle, Dupont Hadley Middle, Glencliff High, H.G. Hill Middle, Hillwood High, Margaret Allen Middle, Napier School, Rose Park Middle, Stratford High, and Stratton Elementary .
The worst offenders, we found, have been cited five times (Kennedy Middle & McGavock High), six times (Maplewood High) and seven times (Hunters Lane High) during their last 8 surprise inspections.
When inspectors keep finding the same critical problems over and over again, the Health Department puts the school on notice -- and the school is warned that if the problem or problems are not fixed immediately, the cafeteria will be shut down.
But the Health Department said that it has not shut down any cafeterias.
Maplewood High was put on notice last year after inspectors repeatedly found both food at the wrong temperature and evidence of rodents.
The school fixed both problems.
But, two weeks ago, during the school's latest inspection, they had two critical violations. Once again, one of them was because food was at the wrong temperature.
And, it wasn't off by just a couple of degrees. There was a 20-30 degree difference, so the inspector ordered the food to be thrown out.
"Why do the same problems keep happening?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked inspector Rodriguez.
"That I'm not sure about," she stated. "It's something that they really want to focus on."
Our investigation also found the number of Metro schools cited for food at the wrong temperature has gone up every year for the past four years.
This year so far, 63 schools have been cited.
That's nearly half of all Metro schools.
Metro's new food service director said that he plans to add more training, including specialized training for managers that he hopes will help bring down the number of these critical violations.
And the Health Department agrees more training is needed, especially after hearing what we found.
It turns out, with their system, they don't have a way to crunch the numbers like we did. So they had no idea that critical violations were growing at such a steady pace. They too hope to now stop that trend.
If you'd like to check out your child's school cafeteria inspection scores, you can click here to look up scores for any school or restaurant in Tennessee .
Important: Be sure to look for the "routine" or "complete" inspection scores which are based on surprise inspections. That's where you'll find the critical violations listed.
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