Sick lunch

School cafeterias around the country get low grades for food safety

By Thomas Schaller
December 16, 2009 11:25PM (UTC)
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I realize this is merely peripheral to the debate over health care reform, health policy generally, and Americans' health status. But as those larger issues are discussed, the fact that--surprise, surprise--some of nation's children are getting sick at school, and not from wiping their noses on their sleeves and sneezing all over each other, is disconcerting and at least timely.

The USA Today reports on new CDC findings showing that school cafeterias remain subpar (if a little better than recent history) in terms of food safety and food quality:


No food-borne illness has sickened more schoolkids in the past decade than norovirus, and none is linked as consistently to improper food handling in cafeterias, a USA TODAY investigation found.

Data kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that norovirus caused at least one-third of the 23,000 food-borne illness cases reported in schools from 1998 through 2007. The toll: about 7,500 sick children, USA TODAY found. Those figures represent just a fraction of all cases. Investigators suspected but couldn't confirm norovirus in nearly 2,000 additional illnesses in schools during that period, and the CDC says many more cases go unreported.

The purpose of the inspection requirement is to ensure that the facilities and workers comply with safety and sanitary requirements — from checking food temperatures to wearing gloves.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, acknowledges that the rule is almost impossible to enforce...

Federal data show that more than half the schools in eight states — including California and New York— failed to meet the requirement for two inspections during the 2007-08 school year. In Maine, the state where the fewest schools conformed to the law, fewer than 1% of schools met the requirement that year.

Although such outbreaks often begin in the cafeteria, more than 8,500 schools failed to have their kitchens inspected at all last year, and another 18,000 fell short of a requirement in the Child Nutrition Act that calls for cafeteria inspections at least twice a year, USA TODAY found. The mandate is part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides food for 31 million schoolchildren across the nation. Almost every school in the United States receives food as part of the program.

Well, that last part about receiving food from the National School Lunch Program is, in fact, part of the problem, if memory serves. Reading Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, the one part that is indelibly seared into my brain is the "shit is in the meat" line he writes after explaining how recalled beef shipments that didn't pass inspection for sale in supermarkets are often bought by the USDA and then distributed to the schools. Hopefully, that no longer happens at the rates it did before FFN went to print. But still...

Anyway, USA Today provides a 50-state ranking so you can check out how your state fared in terms of inspections here. On the east coast, it's almost 1 p.m.--enjoy your lunch!

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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