Filed Under:  Education, Food, Health & Wellness, Local, News

Rats, roaches, flies found at some public school cafeterias

20th February 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Jessica Williams
http://thelensnola.org

Your kid’s public-school cafeteria may not be as clean as you think.

Although the majority of New Orleans’ public-school cafeterias have gotten out of recent health inspections with little noted beyond a few run-down kitchen appliances, 36 of 82 public schools in state files were cited as having critical violations of state health code in 2011 and early 2012, records show.

There are 88 public schools in New Orleans. The state health department lists data for 82 schools, sometimes listing one result for facilities that house two or more school sites. Scroll to the end of the story to check the reports on each school.

Of the 36 with critical offenses, nine schools were specifically cited for rats or rat feces, live and dead roaches, or flies in the kitchen at the time of inspection. Inspectors also noted rat feces at four schools—one of which received only a non-critical offense – in the comments section of the inspection report, although they chose not to give these schools the official pest-control violations because either updated pest-control documents were on file, appropriate rat bait was set out or pest control visits were scheduled.

Other violations, though not related to animal and insect control issues, are still deemed critical by the state’s department of health. Three schools served food that wasn’t heated or cooled properly at the time of inspection, a critical violation by state standards. Four other schools were cited for not keeping food-contact surfaces clean, and another school was cited for cross-contamination of food.

Only eight schools received no violations.

School officials say it’s a problem they’re continuously working on.

The Orleans Parish School Board’s Child Nutrition program manages cafeteria operations for six of the board’s direct-run schools, eight of its charters and four Recovery School District charters that contract with the department.

“Child Nutrition monitors the food service operation at each site to ensure the ongoing safety of food production,” department director Rosie Jackson wrote in a statement to The Lens. “Health reports are reviewed and critical findings get immediate attention.”

Three of Jackson’s schools – Benjamin Franklin Senior High School, Mahalia Jackson Elementary, and New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School – received critical violations, with none of those being pest control violations. However, one of Jackson’s schools, McDonogh City Park Academy, was noted in the inspector’s comments as having rat feces in the dry storage area. The school didn’t get a pest control violation, though, because a recent pest-control invoice was on file.

Jackson takes responsibility for all schools she oversees, though she maintains that the charter schools such as McDonogh City Park are responsible for securing contracts with pest-control companies themselves.

“I do work closely with them, and I’m not trying to put the buck back on them,” she said in a recent interview. “I will remind my schools that they need to get their pest control in on regular occasions.”

Tracking the responsible service provider for the other public schools that received violations has proven to be more difficult.

The RSD has a contract with ARAMARK for food services at its current 16 direct-run schools.

The myriad charter schools can elect to hire their own service provider, as is the case at the four RSD charters that Jackson oversees.

Of the 16 direct-run schools and the 17 charter cafeterias that The Lens determined are run by ARAMARK, 14 received critical violations, with four of those corrected the problem upon a re-inspection. Four of those critical violations were for rat feces.

The schools that received violations for rat feces were A.P. Tureaud Elementary, Gentilly Terrace Charter School, L.B. Landry High School, and Walter L. Cohen High School.

Landry and Cohen were noted as having rat feces again on the re-inspections that state officials conducted, but they did not receive critical pest-control violations. An inspection report for Landry, in which the inspector noted fresh rat feces on storage racks and on floors in the comments section, simply listed the violations received as cleanliness issues, rather than pest-control issues. However, the report also said that a “school dietary conference” was scheduled. The inspector conducting the report for Cohen also listed rat feces found in the dry storage room as a cleanliness issue instead of a pest-control issue, but commented that ARAMARK had not hired a pest control company for the school site. The report went on to say that an ARAMARK supervisor had been contacted, and a conference with RSD had been scheduled.

Another school that didn’t receive a pest-control violation, Joseph Craig Elementary, was also noted as having rat feces next to an open container of rat bait. However, because the school had taken active steps toward pest control remediation by putting out the appropriate rat bait, it also received a cleanliness violation instead of a pest control one.

Department of Health and Hos­pitals spokesman Ken Pastorick said in a statement that conducting conferences with school officials, such as the ones held at Landry and Cohen, is just one of the steps state health officials take when a school incurs repeated critical violations.

Others include a re-inspection to confirm that the violation has been corrected, and finally, if the school is still found to have violations, an issue of a compliance order – which gives the school only 20 days to correct the problem or face fines and license suspension or revocation.

ARAMARK representatives said that they routinely review health inspections, and work with state officials to take the appropriate action.

“Serving safe, nutritious and quality food is our top priority,” Kelly Banaszak, a spokeswoman for the company said in a written statement.

“We have ongoing, rigorous training and quality assurance processes to ensure we meet very high standards. We work with our school district partners to immediately address and correct any issues noted in health inspections.”

What’s considered ‘critical’

State health officers consider critical violations to be those that “if left uncorrected, could directly contribute to food contamination or illness.” Non-critical violations could turn critical if ignored, according to the state’s inspection overview on its website. Pest-control issues, cross-contamination of food, and some kitchen cleanliness issues fall under the critical umbrella – but some school officials say that those and other violations are often issued for nitpicky, picayune offenses.

Ben Kleban, chief executive officer at New Orleans College Preparatory School, said that his school received a pest-control violation in September after an inspector pulled out a large piece of kitchen equipment and found two small rat droppings.

“Who knows how old those droppings were – they could have been behind that equipment for years,” he wrote in an emailed statement. The school also has a contract with Orkin Pest Control, he said, and after a re-inspection, it wasn’t cited for rats again.

In the same September inspection, another violation was issued to Kleban’s school for the kitchen floors not being clean.

“We got cited because there was a spill and the inspector saw that before we had the chance to clean it up,” he said in an interview. “The way it’s written makes it sound like the entire floor was dirty.”

Other officials echo Kleban. David Jackson, spokesman for the Algiers Charter School Association, which runs eight schools, said that most of the violations the association’s schools received were for things such as outside trashcans not being kept closed, or operating permits not being visible. While he’s correct in his statement that most of the association’s violations were minor, a summer program at Edna Karr High School – where an inspector noted that “many dead and live roaches were observed on the floor under standing equipment” – was the exception. A re-inspection conducted a week later noted that no roaches were observed, and pest control documentation was on file.

Indeed, the state can criticize schools for mundane offenses. Something as simple as the dishwasher’s cleaning solution not being the right temperature can land a school with a critical violation. And a school can get written up – albeit non-critically – for “walls, ceilings and/or attached equipment not clean” when the “unclean” item in question is a dusty air-conditioning vent or a dirty ceiling tile, as was the case at six schools.

What’s more, the simple inspection reports that are available for public perusal on the state department of health’s website, eatsafe.la.gov, don’t always tell the whole story, said Jackson of Orleans Parish. For instance, the non-critical violation that six schools received, “no soap and/or paper towels provided for use at the handwash lavatory,” might cause a reader to think that employees preparing food may not have been washing their hands after using the restroom. But as the comments section highlighted in Mahalia Jackson Elementary School’s case, paper towels were the only things that weren’t provided. The five other schools didn’t offer any further insight beyond the vague citation.

Nonetheless, many schools expressed that they have worked with state officials to correct the issues.

“We’ve done anything we can and are supposed to do in terms of preventions, and any of the problems we’ve been cited for have been rectified immediately,” Kleban said.

Tracie Washington, attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School said that the two violations the state cited were corrected that day. The school received one critical violation related to sewage issues, and one non-critical violation of an insect-control device being placed above a food area. Washington did say that trap was not placed above a food area, but rather on the floor, and the school moved it during the inspection. In regards to the sewage issues:

“The drain outside the kitchen door also had a very, very minor clog (it was not backing up but was draining slowly) so a plumber was called out that day to remedy,” she wrote in an email.

The inspection report does make note that a drain service was called.

Some issues are out of schools’ hands, officials say

A considerable number of schools received citations for structural facilities issues, such as unsecured openings that could lead to rat and insect entry – 25 schools received that non-critical violation – and plumbing issues, which 16 schools were cited for. Plumbing issues range from critical to non-critical, depending on severity.

But school officials say that because their buildings are often in dire need of repair, they can do only so much to fix those issues.

Kevin Guitterrez is chief operating officer and president of ReNew Schools, which incurred two critical violations at two of its schools, Sarah T. Reed Elementary and Batiste Cultural Arts Academy. He said while he believes most of the issues noted in the 2010 reports had been remedied, facilities issues remain a problem.

“Those things will be continue to be problems as long as we don’t have the renovations done,” he said.

Kleban agreed, saying that his school’s building is old, and the foundation “has gaps and cracks in it that are hard to close off.”

The city’s school facilities master plan, which is set to give schools nearly $2 billion in existing building renovations and new building construction, will certainly solve much of these issues. But schools won’t see those benefits until as late as 2016, when that plan is completed. It’s a problem to which some school officials can’t find a quick fix.

But other issues – such as combating the insects and rodents that have already made their way past unsecured barriers, making sure kitchens are clean, and ensuring that the food that students see on their plates is every bit as quality as it can be – is their task now, as one school leader contends.

“This is something that we take very, very seriously,” says Stephen Osborn, chief operating officer of the Capital One New Beginnings Network. Osborn says he does regular walk-throughs of the spaces and areas in the network’s four school kitchens, and that he’s committed to ensuring that the network’s 1,900 students are getting quality meals. Though Gentilly Terrace Elementary was one of the schools cited in December for rat feces, Osborn says that over the Christmas holidays, pest-control contractors remedied the situation.

“We want the state in there,” he said. “We are excited to see them play a more active role.”

No records were available for International High School of New Orleans, Lycee Francais De La Nouvelle Orleans, Murray Henderson Elementary, Morris Jeff Community School, Sojourner Truth Academy, and Success Preparatory at Albert Wicker Elementary.

Note: Inspection reports may be conducted at any time, and the state frequently updates its website. Please visit http://inspections.eatsafe.la.gov for the latest updates. Individual detailed reports can be requested from the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

This article originally published in the February 20, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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