Fairfax County health inspectors have discovered cases of moldy cheese, dirty equipment, warm milk, and chicken served at unsafe temperatures in eight out of 10 public school cafeterias in Reston, according to an examination of Fairfax County Health Department restaurant inspection reports.
In the past 14 months, Reston schools have been issued 18 citations for critical health code violations. A critical violation is classified as more serious because there is a greater chance it will directly contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental degradation.
Overall, Reston's 10 public school cafeterias were written up for 101 critical and non-critical violations during routine and follow-up inspections. Approximately 32 percent of these violations were for repeat offenses that were left uncorrected.
Only two Reston schools, Dogwood Elementary and Hunters Woods Elementary, had no critical or repeat violations during the period examined by the Reston Connection.
It is unrealistic to expect school cafeterias to be completely free of violations, but some of the offenses discovered in Reston's schools appear to cross the line, said Dennis Hill, director of Fairfax County Department of Environmental Health.
"It's not reasonable," he said. "We expect to find it, but this is not something that we tolerate." Fairfax County requires public school cafeterias to be inspected at least twice a year.
Not all health code violations should be considered dangerous. Several schools, for instance, were written citations for leaving open the dumpster lid behind the school.
However, at least 30 violations by Reston schools could be deemed more serious.
Among these offenses are 11 citations for dirty equipment, nine citations for a lack of sneeze guards over the lunch lines, two citations for meat served at improper temperatures, and two citations for too little or no soap at all in cleaning solutions.
ARMSTRONG ELEMENTARY School received the greatest number of critical violations over the 14-month period. During the school's most recent inspection, on Dec. 9, 2003, health department officials found chicken tenders being served at 121 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 20 degrees below the required temperature. The inspectors also found moldy cheese in the freezer, two months past its sell-by date.
During previous inspections of the Armstrong Elementary cafeteria, health department officials found the ice machine soiled, cleaning supplies stored next to food and peeling paint over the ovens.
Cindy West, Armstrong's principal since 1999, said she was shocked to learn that her school topped the list of health code violations among Reston school cafeterias.
"I have not had one parent come to me with a complaint about my food service operation," she said.
Most of the violations were rectified while the health inspector was present, said West, who regularly eats Armstrong's cafeteria food herself.
The perception of the cafeteria among Armstrong's teachers and staff is that the lunchroom is properly run, West said.
"It's amazing. It's wonderful. It's the most efficient, organized, clean kitchen at any school I've been at in the county," she said.
Approximately 325 students eat at Armstrong’s cafeteria every school day, which is about 70 percent of the total student body. Many of Armstrong’s teachers and administrators eat school food daily as well, said Greg Brotemarkle, Armstrong’s assistant principal.
West does not supervise the cafeteria employees; they are hired, trained, and evaluated by Fairfax County Public Schools.
Slip-ups are certain to happen occasionally and Armstrong is no exception — though the situation is hardly dire, West said.
"It's just the nature of the school system," she said. "It's so large, things are going to happen."
HEALTH CODE inspections are a "snapshot" of the day and time of the actual inspection, so the reports should not be seen as conclusive proof of a cafeteria's cleanliness. In actuality, there may be greater or fewer violations than the reports indicate.
"You can't guarantee that it's good or bad because it's a snapshot of the time of the inspection," said Hill, from the county Department of Environmental Health.
School cafeterias are considered a high-risk food establishment because of the high volume of customers and because workers handle such large amounts of food each day, Hill said.
Because health code violations are typically corrected as soon as the inspector points out the offense, parents should not worry that their child is eating unsafe food, said Penny McConnell, director of nutrition services for Fairfax County Public Schools.
"Our ultimate goal is to ensure we're serving quality, safe food to all of our customers," McConnell said.
Regional supervisors and cafeteria managers undergo a rigorous training process to ensure that food safety standards are upheld, McConnell said. Every month, cafeteria managers are required to complete a four-page inspection report, which tests for such items as proper food temperatures and whether or not employees are washing their hands.
"Our training is continuous," she said. "You can never let your guard down."
The violations health inspectors discovered in Reston's schools should be largely blamed on the cultural adjustment of immigrant food service employees, McConnell said. About 70 percent of the 1,200 employees in the department are from other countries.
"We're having to train them about many things they didn't have to do in their native land," she said. "If you're from a country with starving people, you're not going to discard food that's been out for too long because you'd think it's wasteful."
Cafeteria employees generally earn less than $10 an hour, though the turnover rate is approximately 5 percent for food service workers across the county.
With so many workers at so many schools, McConnell said, mistakes are simply going to happen.
"Sometimes you have an employee who makes a boo-boo," she said. "You just have to hope that it's not a major boo-boo."
THE MOST COMMON repeated violation, which was left uncorrected at six of the schools after inspectors identified the offense, was the lack of sneeze guards along the cafeteria lunch lines. Sneeze guards are required by the health code to protect the food on display from contamination.
Sneeze guards have not been installed because Fairfax County schools must comply with federal regulations that allow students to choose and take what they want to eat, rather than be handed the food by a cafeteria worker. A sneeze guard would get in the way when a student is reaching for hot food, McConnell said.
The Fairfax Health Department disagrees with the school system on this issue, Hill said.
"There's no reason they can't have sneeze guards," he said. "Any cafeteria should have those."
Options exist regarding sneeze guards, Hill said, and the benefits of preventing disease outbreaks dramatically outweigh the costs of implementing the extra protection.
New schools are built with proper sneeze guards, but it is too expensive to replace serving lines in existing schools, said Maria Adair, coordinator of food services for the school system.
“We’ve agreed to disagree with the health department over sneeze guards,” she said.
Serving meat that had cooled to an unsafe temperature was another notable violation that occurred at two Reston schools — Armstrong Elementary and Langston Hughes Middle School.
The health code requires meat to be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and then maintained at 140 degrees minimum. This is considered a critical violation because bacteria can begin to grow if the meat is not hot enough, Hill said.
"You always have to keep the food hot, or you keep it cold," he said. "For cold items, you keep them below 41 degrees, and for hot items you keep them over 140. Bottom line, any temperature between those two numbers is where you get bacterial growth."
Of course food items cool when they're left out along the serving line, McConnell said. If spaghetti is being served to students, the spaghetti is expected to drop slightly in temperature. If the spaghetti is found to be too cool, it is promptly discarded, she said.
"We're dealing with a very delicate product," she said. "Food is something you have to handle carefully."