Are your child's school lunches safe? - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Are your child's school lunches safe?

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LOUISIANA - For a parent, there's nothing more important than their child's health and well-being.  You expect school to be a safe place.  And that includes the food they eat.  So how safe is your child's school lunch?

The Department of Health and Hospitals says inspections are done at school cafeterias twice a year, once each semester.  So we wanted to know how well the DHH does their job and here's what we found.

Starting online, we found two schools  - just in Caddo Parish - that showed no inspections this school year.  At the time of our investigation, the most recent records available on the DHH website of inspections done at both Youree Drive Middle School and Caddo Middle Magnet were from the spring of last school year.  When we asked the DHH about Youree Drive Middle School, they emailed us an inspection done there in August of 2013, saying that this electronic inspection just wasn't uploaded to the website.

After seeing that record, we were concerned by the length of time, just 14 minutes, spent at the school for the inspection.  So we went down to the local sanitarians office to get our hands on more records.  After an hour of waiting, they handed over that same inspection of Youree Drive Middle School that was emailed to us, and an inspection done this month.   They also provided an inspection of Caddo Middle Magnet from the beginning of this school year.  That inspection is still not on the DHH website.

Since Youree Drive Middle School serves about 10,000 meals a month (on average 108 breakfast meals and 421 lunch meals a day), and Caddo Middle Magnet serves nearly 9,000 (on average 95 breakfast meals and 346 lunch meals a day), you can imagine how surprised we were to learn how long sanitarians actually spend inspecting these cafeterias. 

You won't find this online, but noted on the copies provided to us are the start and end times of the inspections.  Those most recent inspections at Youree Drive Middle School took 14 minutes and 25 minutes.  The only inspection so far this year at Caddo Middle Magnet lasted for 20 minutes. 

The food inspection form is 35 pages, with hundreds of violations listed. It takes almost 15 minutes just to read and check off each violation, without actually digging around, watching, or taking the temperature of anything.  Given the number of sanitarians working in Caddo Parish, and the establishments they check, we did the math and found that sanitarians could spend about 2.5 hours on each inspection each day.  This is what we did: 

There are 5 sanitarians in Caddo. 

52 weeks in a year x 5 days = 260 week days -10 state holidays - minimum of 12 days vacation (0.461 hrs of vacation earned for every 40 hrs of work) = 238 work days in a year. 

238 work days X 5 workers = 1190 workdays

3987 – (the number of inspections DHH says are done for Caddo) 

3987 divided by 1190 work days = 3.35 inspections per day, or in an 8 hr work day, comes out to about 2.5 hours per inspection.  (Of course, this does not take into account driving time or administrative tasks/meetings, etc., but gave us a sense of if we had enough sanitarians available to do the needed inspections and if they had an obvious reason to be rushed.) 

When we asked the DHH how long a "thorough" inspection should take - they said: "Each inspection a sanitarian conducts is thorough...Generally inspection times will vary from 30 minutes to two or three hours."

That clearly isn't what our investigation found is actually happening locally.

During inspections - sanitarians note either "critical" or "non-critical violations."  Critical violations are more likely to lead to contamination or illness, non-critical violations - if left uncorrected, could become critical. We asked LA Office of Public Health Assistant Secretary J.T. Lane what happens when  critical violations are found.

"They typically have up to fourteen days to correct it, he says.   "Obviously, anything that poses an immediate public health risk, we would ask them to voluntarily shut down, or shut them down ourselves by order by a health officer, so it depends on the severity of the critical violation."  For non-critical violations, Lane says some can be corrected on site, and some are left to the schools to take care of.

Here are examples of those types of violations:

"Plumbing is not maintained."

 "Openings are not protected against the entry of rodents or insects."

"Air intake/exhaust vents are causing contamination of food, food preparation surfaces, equipment, or utensils."

Lane did say, "if we had any concerns that it wouldn't be corrected we'd go back and re-inspect."  But we found no evidence that some of these non-critical violations that we felt were of greater concern were addressed by DHH employees.  However, many of these violations weren't noted the next inspection.

Even a decade after switching to an electronic inspection system, some of the cafeteria inspections are not showing up on the public website.   And while documents provided to us do show that the required inspections were performed and don't show horrific violations going uncorrected and putting our students in danger, the short time sanitarians spent doing an inspection did get our attention.  

However - when we asked the regional sanitarian manager - Bob Norred - about the timing, he wasn't surprised by the short time.  Norred says that simply shows there were few violations to write up, and the equipment sanitarians have can quickly calculate temperatures.  He explained to us that schools are generally quite clean and well supervised, with a dietary manager in place with one year of training.

We asked assistant secretary lane for his assessment of how inspections in the state are going.  He says productivity has never been at a higher level.  Last year, the DHH implemented the "lean six sigma" methodology to accomplish even more.  Free consultants were brought in to overhaul their inspection process.  He says they've done more inspections than ever in the past year.
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