SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — School cafeteria kitchens in Washington serve about 500,000 lunches a day. Given that volume, you might expect school kitchens to rack up a fair number of health department violations.
A Spokesman-Review review (http://is.gd/gX5l7F) of school cafeteria inspection reports, however, found only 521 citations in three years in Washington's 295 school districts, which includes more than 3,000 schools.
Overall, most schools have clean, safe kitchen operations, according to the newspaper's review of 4,500 pages of inspection records.
However, about 25 percent of school kitchens are not inspected twice a year as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including schools in Spokane and King counties. Responsibility for that rests primarily on county health agencies, which conduct the inspections.
"Schools are low-risk; the workers are well trained and committed," said Doug Wordell, Spokane Public Schools' nutrition services director. "Schools are the safest place kids eat."
Mouse infestations, mold, expired food and kitchen staff using their bare hands to prepare food for K-12 students were among the worst violations found in Washington's school kitchens between 2010 and 2012, the newspaper reported.
Spokane County health officials say school kitchens are only inspected once a year because they are considered low-risk.
"We prioritize our inspections based on risk," said Ray Byrne, Spokane County Regional Health District food safety program manager. "The menus that schools serve are not high-risk because they are mostly prepackaged and pre-prepared."
Although the government has the ability to withhold funding if a school district fails to have two inspections, that hasn't happened, said a USDA spokeswoman.
"I'm not real concerned about it; schools are run safely," David Gifford, Washington state Department of Health food safety director, told the newspaper.
School kitchens in the state are held to the same health code standards as restaurants, even though they serve significantly more meals per day.
Despite their relative scarcity in school kitchens, food-handling violations are of great concern to public health officials, the state's Gifford said. "It is, both nationally and in Washington, the No. 1 cause of foodborne disease," he added.
According to the Spokesman Review, inspectors found workers not using gloves or not properly washing their hands in several locations, including in the Lake Washington, North Beach, Toutle Lake, Columbia, Vancouver, Cape Flattery, Cascade and Kennewick school districts.
The newspaper found that smaller districts tended to have more egregious violations: rodent problems; food handlers not wearing gloves or not washing their hands; or, in one case, pink mold found in an ice machine.
Violations among the larger districts were usually for problems like faulty equipment, improper food-holding temperatures, expired food worker cards or too little or too much bleach in sanitizing water.
Schools in Garfield and Mason counties had no violations in three years, documents show.
Inspection reports: http://www.spokesman.com/cafeteriadocs
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com