School cafeterias: Can you trust that they're clean and safe?

School cafeterias: Can you trust that they're clean and safe?

Your kids are going back to school.  Just how safe is their school cafeteria?

Our KATU investigation uncovered problems from mold and mildew to mouse droppings at school kitchens across the Portland area.

County inspectors look at school cafeterias twice a year.

We compiled and analyzed hundreds of inspection reports from nine local districts for the past two years and found that some schools are serving up violations along with the hot lunch.

The Moore family just moved to Portland from Illinois.

Nine-year-old Lucy wants to see pasta on the lunch menu at her new school.

Her brother, 11-year-old John, wants vegan pizza.

Their mother, Becky Moore, is hoping the cafeteria kitchen will be clean and safe.

"You just want to know your kids are being taken care of at the school and the food they're getting is healthy, similar to what you would do in your own home."

However, our investigation shows that's not the case at every school.

We found violations at local schools in 2012 and 2013 like fruit flies in the kitchen, roaches in dry storage and more.

At Roosevelt High School in Portland, the inspector found rodent droppings and suggested the school set big traps.

"It sounds pretty gross.  I'd be concerned about that," said Moore.

At Tualatin High School, the health report said ants were covering cleaning supplies.

In Hillsboro, the county inspector found two-month-old salsa at Quatama Elementary.

"Yeah, that needs to be thrown away," Moore said. "I hope they didn't serve that."

At Rosedale Elementary in Beaverton, the report notes mold/mildew build-up in the ice machine.

"That one concerns me a little more, because of my son having asthma," said Moore. "Mold takes a while to grow, so you wonder how long it's been neglected, if that's been happening."

In Vancouver, the health report showed food in the temperature danger zone at Minnehaha Elementary.  At least 11 schools in the Vancouver district had temperature problems. That was the most common violation for schools across our area: food not hot enough---or cold enough---to stop bacteria from growing that could make your children sick, if the food is left out too long.

Some of these violations are too much for Moore.

"I would hope that, if a principal or cafeteria staff found out about these things, it would be a wake-up call.  I would think they would think it's gross, too.  I would hope they would want to correct it right away."

The head of food service at Portland Public Schools says they do correct violations right away.

"Food safety is so critical," said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, Director of Nutrition Services. "We don't want any of the kids to get sick from any of the foods served."

Grether-Sweeney said the actual number of violations is very low and few schools are affected.

KATU's data analysis showed 84 percent of Portland Public Schools received no critical violations in 2013.

The district serves about 30,000 meals a day at 81 schools.

"It's impossible to always be perfect, but we're really proud of the record that we do have," added Grether-Sweeney.

She said that record includes fixing the violations before inspectors can even come back for a re-check.

"What they need to know is we follow-up immediately with those violations.  Many times it's the exact same day that we need to correct something," said Grether-Sweeney.

In 2011 and 2012, five Portland schools had evidence of rodents, such as droppings or even a package of rolls chewed open.

"We experience rodents at our own homes and the important thing is how we try to prevent the rodents and we do a lot around that, how we store our food and make sure it's stored properly. And even that sometimes we still have them and we take care of it right away," said Grether-Sweeney.

She said there are many fewer violations in schools than in restaurants, and added that Portland school cafeteria employees constantly monitor and train with managers doing their own inspections on their cafeterias about once a week.  

"The emphasis I would like to say is that the school cafeteria is the safest place to eat," said Grether-Sweeney.  "They (parents) should be very assured the cafeteria is a safe place to send their child to eat.  Because they're our kids, too. And we want them to be very safe."

Moore is about to find out the inspection results for the school where her kids will go, for the first time, in September.  All three are going to Laurelhurst in Northeast Portland.  She is happy to learn there are no violations on the school's latest inspection.

"Well, that's a relief!  I'm glad to hear it, "said Moore. "That's really good."

As it turns out, the last inspection report for Laurelhurst shows no violations.  However, the inspector did make two comments at the bottom.  One said, "Well maintained kitchen," and the other, "Mold is beginning to accumulate near the floor on the back wall and rack. Recommend 100-200 ppm chlorine solution to remedy."

You can check out school district responses below:

(The following are in pdf format)