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Colorado school kitchen inspections fall short

Federal regulations require school lunchrooms be inspected at least twice a year by local health authorities but more than half of all Colorado schools fail to meet that mandate. Many aren’t inspected even once a year.

It’s a record that put Colorado in the bottom five of all states in 2008-09, the most recent year available, when an average 29.5 percent of schools nationwide fell short of the required number of inspections.

The reason so many schools lag: While the 2004 School Lunch Reauthorization Act requires schools to obtain twice-yearly inspections, Congress didn’t set aside any additional money to pay for those increased inspections.

Find your school

  • Health inspection reports of school cafeterias are public record but some counties make it easier than others to find them.
  • Click here to go to links and instructions for finding inspection reports online for schools in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa and Weld counties.
  • Inspection reports are not available online in El Paso and Pueblo counties.

Cash-strapped county health departments — who aren’t answerable to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program — often choose to put their inspection resources elsewhere, and schools are caught in the middle. Since there’s no penalty for non-compliance, few school districts press the issue.

In Colorado, at least, no major illnesses have ensued. The last widespread illness traceable to food served in a school lunchroom was in 2000, when some 50 students at an elementary school in Adams County fell ill with shigella after eating tainted gelatin.

But with more and more schools abandoning frozen processed foods and returning to scratch cooking from fresh raw ingredients, officials acknowledge the possibility for food contamination will grow.

“We use a risk-based approach in our inspections, and many of our schools are in a lower risk category now based on the fact the menu consists of pre-packaged prepared food,” said Lane Drager, consumer protection program coordinator for Boulder County Public Health. “That’s very low-risk from a food safety standpoint.

“Schools will change their risk profile with a different menu,” Drager said. “But we don’t have any different resources with which to do more inspections. It will be a huge challenge for us.”

Fresher food means higher risk

The challenge will be especially acute in Boulder County, where the Boulder Valley school district has been in the forefront of the return to scratch cooking. Yet of the 126 Colorado schools that got no county health inspections during the 2008-09 school year – the last year for which records have been compiled – 62 were in Boulder County.

“I don’t know that we have an answer on how to solve this.The FDA recommends assigning roughly 300 or so inspections per staff person. If we were doing that, we would have to double the staff just to meet the workload.”— Lane Drager, Boulder County Public Health

Only six Boulder County schools – four in Boulder Valley and two in the St. Vrain school district – were inspected twice that year, and two in Boulder Valley were inspected three or more times. Nineteen were inspected once.

Raw foods had yet to be introduced into Boulder Valley in 2008-09. Their use is really beginning this year. Drager sighed when asked about the additional inspection time the district’s new menu will require.

“They were serving a low-risk menu, but since it’s for schoolchildren, it’s a high-risk population. Needing additional resources is something that has really concerned me, something we need to be able to address. But we didn’t have any extra resources,” Drager said. “Now we’ll have a high-risk menu with a high risk population, and so we’re really going to need more inspections.

“I don’t know that we have an answer on how to solve this,” he added. “The FDA recommends assigning roughly 300 or so inspections per staff person. If we were doing that, we would have to double the staff just to meet the workload. And that doesn’t account for outbreaks or other unplanned activities.”

One such “unplanned activity” in Boulder occurred in June, when the county health department ordered the Billy Goat Dairy in Longmont to stop distribution of its raw milk after 16 people became ill. Tests showed the presence of campylobacter and E. Coli in the milk.

‘State law trumps federal rules’

El Paso County accounted for more than half of the remaining uninspected schools in 2008-09. Of the 182 schools spread among the 15 El Paso County school districts, 37 got no inspections, 104 got one inspection, 40 got two and 11 got three or more.

Statewide, 629 schools were inspected one time in the 08-09 school year, 571 were inspected twice and 101 received three or more inspections. Third inspections typically are follow-up inspections to ensure that critical violations have been addressed.

Colorado is not alone

  • An in-depth examination of school cafeteria inspections by USA Today found tens of thousands of U.S. schools were not inspected twice-yearly as required by federal mandate.
  • The newspaper’s December 2009 analysis looks at cases of cafeteria-related illnesses nationwide and provides a state-by-state data table.

Records of inspection frequency for the 2009-10 school year for each the state’s 178 school districts will be compiled in October, state officials said. But inspection reports for individual schools – both the most recent inspection as well as those dating back several years – are available online at many county or regional health department websites.

Patti Klocker, assistant director of the Division of Environmental Health and Sustainability at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that where school lunchroom inspections are involved, state law trumps federal regulation.

In Colorado, state law says retail food establishments – that’s what school lunchrooms are considered to be – must either be inspected twice a year or county officials may use a risk-based model to determine inspection frequency. The factors that go into determining risk are 1) menu, 2) operations, 3) weekly meal volume and 4) past inspection results.

“A lot of schools are inspected twice a year, some more often,” Klocker said. “But it’s a quandary we’re in. I can’t, as a state agency, require a county agency to do more than is required by state law. We’ve told USDA that. But they never once talked to us, never once gave us resources for it.”

Jeffco, Denver, Mesa closer to twice-a-year mandate

Some districts have few problems attaining the required number of inspections for their schools:

  • All the schools in Jefferson County – the state’s largest school district – were inspected at least once in the 2008-09 school year, and only three failed to have at least two inspections.
  • In Denver, 74 schools had two inspections, 22 had three or more and 32 had only one inspection. No school failed to be inspected at least once.
  • Every school in Mesa County’s three school districts was inspected at least twice, and 11 were inspected three times or more.

“This was already something that was happening when I walked in,” said Linda Stoll, director of food and nutrition services for Jefferson County Schools. “The director who was here before me worked very proactively with the health department to let them know we needed this.

One school, four inspectionsMontbello High School stood out in EdNews’ look at 2009-10 inspection reports for Denver schools for a high number of critical violations:

  • “Employees eating, drinking, or smoking in non-designated areas…Evidence of rodents is found in facility. large amount of mouse feces in dry storage…Unapproved pesticides are used and/or stored in the facility…”
    –Sept. 30, 2009 report
  • “No critical or non-critical violations.”
    –Oct. 8, 2009 report
  • “Evidence of rodents is found in facility. fecal evidence of rodents found under food shelves in dry storage…”
    –April 8, 2010 report
  • “Evidence of rodents is found in facility…evidence appears old; likely not cleaned after previous inspection…”
    –April 15, 2010 report

“We check halfway through the year,” Stoll said, “and if we have a school that hasn’t had its first inspection of the year, we call the health department to remind them.”

Leo Lesh, director of food services for DPS, said he is equally pro-active about calling the health department if a school hasn’t received an inspection in awhile.

“We don’t get a second inspection for 100 percent of our schools but we get a lot, and we let them know which ones they’re missing,” Lesh said.

Reports for the 2009-10 school year are available online in some counties. So Education News Coloradoreviewed all 2009-10 school reports filed for Denver Public Schools on the city’s website to get a sense of what inspectors are finding. (See the spreadsheet listing DPS schools with critical violations and inspector’s comments.)

Altogether, 67 of the 125 cafeterias inspected received between one and five “Type 1” or critical violations, with most receiving one. DPS has about 160 “schools” or programs but several cafeterias serve more than one “school,” such as Rishel Middle School, which serves three programs at one campus.

Denver’s Department of Environmental Health website defines Type 1 violations as “violations which may not necessarily cause, but are likely to cause food-borne illness.” This includes issues as varied as chemical sanitizer of insufficient concentration to dented canned goods to improper sink drainage. A common example is the improper heating or cooling of food as it’s prepared, served and stored.

The reports indicate most schools moved quickly to correct issues, either in the inspector’s presence or before a follow-up visit. Eight schools were cited for evidence of rodents or insects, the violation likely carrying the highest “ick” factor. That included East and South high schools, along with elementaries such as Smith and Steele.

One school – Montbello High School – was cited repeatedly for rodents. The school was visited four times by inspectors, with the last report showing continuing problems.

Annual looks norm in Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas

In the districts served by Tri-County Health Department – schools in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties – once-a-year inspections are the norm. While only one school in the three-county region failed to have a single inspection in the 2008-09 school year, only a handful had more than one.

“I know they would like to see two-a-year minimum but at this point, based on their inspection history and their risk, it doesn’t justify that,” said Tom Butts, director of environmental health for Tri-County Health. “So we don’t do that.”

National data

While there’s no national database of food-borne illnesses associated with school lunchrooms, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported in 2007 that it had documented more than 11,000 cases between 1990 and 2004.“Most of the violations we see in the schools are minor,” he said. “They have a good focus on rodent and insect control, chemical handling, hand washing, those kinds of things. They’re focusing well, by and large, on the right stuff.”

Indeed, most schools do tend to fare well in county health inspections. Critical violations – those that could result in a food-borne illness – typically center on food temperatures or having garbage too near food preparation areas.

Districts that are moving to scratch-based cooking say they’re stepping up their own food safety policies, regardless of how often county health inspectors show up.

In Boulder Valley, five district managers are expected to visit every school lunchroom at least once a week. Satellite managers are given thermometers and expected to use them to ensure hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold, and that no food lingers in the dangerous 40- to 140-degree zone for very long.

In addition, the district has gone from cooking in every school to cooking at five regional sites. Those sites are staffed by professional chefs well-trained in food safety precautions, said Ann Cooper, director of food and nutrition for the district.

“Health inspections play an important role,” she said. “They’re an important tool to help us see things we might not otherwise see. But it’s our job as food service professionals to assure the safety of our kids.”

Increased oversight not top priority for some

Cooper insisted that, given limited resources, increased oversight ought not be a top priority.

“If Americans really care about school food, what we should be demanding is not more oversight but more money for food,” she said. “It’s not the oversight that will get good food on the kids’ plates. We need more money to buy food, for facilities, for training. I’m not saying the health department doesn’t need more money, but that’s not what will ensure that the kids are well-nourished.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Colorado Springs School District 11’s director of food and nutrition, Rick Hughes. He said he simply doesn’t rely on the El Paso County Health Department to alert him to problems.

Two years ago, the district adopted the ServSafe Food Safety certification program, a rigorous program developed by the National Restaurant Association, and has made the training mandatory for many food service personnel.

“People can lose their jobs if they don’t attain that certification, which shows they have a good understanding of food safety,” Hughes said.

He said that since adopting the ServSafe program, more District 11 lunchrooms have received perfect inspections than ever before.

Hughes also disputes the commonly-held notion that scratch cooking is inherently riskier than relying on processed frozen foods. He said he receives almost daily notifications about food recalls involving processing plants.

“We’ve put this blind faith in our food industry but they’re not our friend,” he said. “They’re out to make a buck – and there’s not a lot of money in unprocessed foods. So you don’t see a lot of marketing of fresh, locally grown green beans and corn.”

Training an issue for food workers

In Jeffco, even with twice-yearly county health department inspections, school district site supervisors do two additional in-house inspections per school, for a total of four a year. Even so, Stoll is nervous.

“Like everyone else, we’re headed in the direction of scratch. But we’re not ready to begin cooking meat from scratch,” she said. “We’re looking for something I call ‘naked protein.’ We’re looking for cooked, shredded chicken, with nothing added to it. The same with beef and pork. We’re starting with that pre-cooked protein and going from there.

“But we just don’t have the training for our staff yet,” she said. “We don’t have a generation of people applying for jobs who grew up cooking, so training is the major obstacle we’re trying to overcome.”

In Denver, each school kitchen keeps a “charley plate,” Lesh said. That’s a plate containing a sample of everything cooked that day. Each plate is kept in the freezer and preserved for five days.

“That’s in case there is an illness outbreak,” Lesh said. “We can say ‘This is what we served today,’ and someone else can analyze it.

“We’ve been blamed for things that we didn’t cook,” he said. “If someone brings in food from home, and someone gets sick, the first thing people think is that it’s the food in the cafeteria. We’re blamed for anything that happens at school when it comes to food, and the damage is done even if we can prove we didn’t do it.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

To check an individual school’s inspection reports, go to the website of the county or regional health department with oversight for the particular school district. The reports will be under the “Restaurant Inspection” or “Food Safety Inspection” heading.

Here’s an example of how to find a report in Denver Public Schools:

  1. Click on the link Denver Department of Environmental Health.
  2. The main menu page allows you to search for inspections or enforcement actions. Click on the top link and enter a school name in the “Search for” box. You also can enter an address.
  3. To see nearly all school inspection reports, or if you’re unable to find an individual school, type “school” in the “Search for” box. This will bring up most public and private school inspections.
  4. Some school names are entered in city records in an unusual way. This includes “Westwood Richard Castro Elementary” for Castro, “Lena Lovato-Archuleta Elementary” for Archuleta and “Denver West Preparatory Academy” for West Denver Prep.

Here are some links to the state’s largest counties to get you started:

Some search tips for finding schools:

  • Try typing in a school’s name without filling in any other boxes, such as city or address. This seems to work best on most websites.
  • If you’re having trouble finding a school, or if you want to see more than one school’s inspections, type the word “school” into the search box. This typically returns nearly all public and private schools.
  • Some websites, including Boulder County, list the violation found in an inspection but no specific details. You’ll have to contact the department to learn more about that “evidence of insects found” violation at your child’s school.
  • Once you find your school, you will see all reports dating back to June 1, 2000. Each report contains a listing of critical and non-critical violations. Only recent reports, however, contain the inspector’s comments.

EdNews Parent and Education News Colorado examined reports from the last school year to get a sense of what health inspectors are finding in Denver school cafeterias. This spreadsheet shows only schools receiving critical violations and notes any follow-up visits reported on the Denver Department of Environmental Health website.

If your school is not listed here, it either did not receive a critical violation, it was not inspected in 2009-10 or we couldn’t find it despite repeated attempts. City records contain numerous misspellings. Also, keep in mind that one school may serve several programs, such as Rishel Middle serving Rishel, KIPP Denver Collegiate High and the Math and Science Leadership Academy.

Use the sliders at the bottom and right to view the spreadsheet here or go here to see it in full.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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