Dirty Cafeterias: Is your child's health at risk?

This past school year, 95 percent of school cafeterias in Prince George's County and D.C. were cited for at least one violation.

This past school year, 95 percent of school cafeterias in Prince George's County and D.C. were cited for at least one violation. None

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - When you give your kids money to buy lunch at school you expect that it would be safe for them, right? Well it turns out that may not be the case. 

A WUSA9 investigation found that 95 percent of school cafeterias in Prince George's County and in D.C. were cited for at least one violation this past school year .

Doctors say some of the violations could lead to food poisoning, which can be deadly, especially in children and teens with developing bodies.

THE VIOLATIONS

In Prince George's County during the 2016-2017 school year, one in four schools were cited for rodents, insects and foods kept at improper temperatures, according to online inspection reports. 

RELATED: Violations at DC, Maryland and Virginia Schools

For example, at Capitol Heights Elementary in Capitol Heights, Maryland, inspectors marked the school out of compliance for rodents in October of 2016. Inspectors were back five months later in March of 2017, and again found the school out of compliance for rodents. Inspectors have not been back to the school since. 

In  D.C., one in 10 schools were cited for rodents, insects and foods kept at improper temperatures, according to online inspection reports. 

For example, in October 2016 at McKinley Technology High School in NE DC, inspectors found mold in the ice maker and cheese held at improper temperatures. Inspectors went back a week later and found that the problems haven't been fixed and inspectors haven't been back to check the school since.

"There was an increased activity last year with rodents and vermin in particular," said Susan Thweatt, Program Chief with the Prince George's County Health Department. 

Health experts said the best way to ensure healthy cafeterias is to inspect them more frequently, but staffing levels would make that difficult.

"You are never going to have zero violations," said Ivory Cooper, Sanitarian at the DC Health Department. 

How often are schools required to be inspected?

Federal law requires that each school is inspected twice a school year. However, re-inspections are not required. 

Food policy experts say the only way to ensure schools stay violation-free, is to frequently inspect schools. Our investigation found that in dozens of schools cited for rodent violations, inspectors often wouldn't return back to the school for months. 

Is my child at risk in a cafeteria that has been cited by the health department?

Doctors say if rodents are detected in a cafeteria or food is not kept at proper temperatures, kids can get ill. 

“If there is any kind of mixture of urine or feces gets into the food. That's just scratching the surface," said Dr. Ghassan Atiyeh, Pediatritian in Fairfax County.

According to doctors, it could lead to salmonella.

Symptoms of salmonella include fever, vomiting and diarrhea. A concern associated with salmonella is severe dehydration would could require hospitalization for children.

Dr. Atiyeh also said there are dangers associated with eating food kept at improper temperatures. 

"Most people who get food poisoning…get vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, etc. But you get past it in a few days," said Dr. Atiyeh.  "One thing that we worry about with kids...is a bloody type of diarrhea. In some kids you can also get what is called Hemolytic-uremic syndrome."

Hemolytic-uremic syndrome can often turn deadly for children. 

Why isn't every school re-inspected on a frequent basis?

It all comes down to staffing. 

In DC and Prince George's County health departments, there is just one health inspector for every 235 school cafeterias, bakeries and restaurants that are required to be inspected. It would be almost impossible for the staff to re-inspect every single school each time there is a violation. 

"We leave our report, and it's up to the schools to come in and provide the pest management," said Thweatt.

Thweatt said the health departments will then follow-up with the schools to make sure the problem is taken care of. 

"We have enough inspectors, but would always love to have more," said Ivory Cooper, a Sanitarian at the DC Health Department. 

Are schools safe?

The DC and Prince George's County Health Departments point to the fact that there are no cases of local kids getting sick from school cafeterias in the area. However, that can be misleading.

Food policy experts said cases are often underreported by parents. It can also be difficult to trace illnesses back to cafeterias. 

If there is a violation in your child's cafeteria, schools are not required to notify parents.

When WUSA9 asked if the DC Health Department was doing anything differently to improve conditions this year, Cooper replied, "Nothing really differently this year."

Thweatt echoed that same sentiment. When asked if she had confidence in her staff and the job that they were doing she replied, "absolutely."


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