Nearly half of public school cafeterias in New York City racked up at least one dangerous health code violation this past year, including evidence of rats and mice, roaches and flies.
An analysis of city Health Department data conducted by student journalists at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism found 1,150 critical violations that could lead to foodborne illnesses at nearly 695 school cafeterias, according to media reports.
That’s almost half of 1,407 cafeterias inspected by health officials in 2017. Of those, 617 critical violations showed evidence of vermin in school kitchens and dining rooms.
Second-year CUNY journalism school student Pauliina Siniauer, who produced the report with other students for CUNY’s NYCityNews Service, said the findings should raise red flags for families.
“It’s a health risk. Critical violations can get kids sick,” said Siniauer, who based her report on data she obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request. “We found that kids were vomiting and … getting sick from the food.”
One of the worst was Middle School 137 in Ozone Park, Queens, where an inspector found about 1,500 flies in the cafeteria on July 12, the New York Daily News reported.
Four days and two additional inspections passed before school staffers cleaned up the infestation, according to the report.
Parents were disgusted when a reporter informed them of the mess. But they weren’t surprised because their kids had told them of the filthy conditions.
Solomon Ramdas said his 14-year-old son used to share horror stories about flies and roaches in the cafeteria when he went there last year. Now he’s hearing similar stories from his 11-year-old daughter who goes to Middle School 137.
“The system has to change,” Ramdas told the Daily News. “I have heard stories about roaches in the cafeteria. My daughter doesn’t eat here. The kids always get sick.”
At Public School 770 in Brooklyn, parents said they hadn’t been informed of an inspection last spring that found roaches and mice droppings in the cafeteria and kitchen
“Children can get disease from being around that,” said Michelle Machado, 38, who has two kids who go there. “This is the first time I’m hearing this. Would the school be honest and tell me about this? I don’t think so.”
The CUNY analysis published Wednesday comes on the heels of a number of negative reports about food being served in city schools, including green pizza that was yanked from menus in 2016.
In September, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced free lunches in all city schools for any student who wants them.
The “Free Lunch for All” program is paid for through a federal program and provides free lunches in the nation’s highest-poverty schools. The NYCity News Service report revealed that four dozen school cafeterias with the worst violation records were serving the city’s poorest students.
City officials have not followed through on plans to hire 2,000 more cafeteria workers since launching the universal lunch program, Shaun D. Francois, the head of the labor union representing cafeteria workers, told NYCity News Service.
While many schools were cited with violations, City Education Department spokesman Michael Aciman noted that roughly 98 percent of them ultimately passed their health inspections in 2017, which he said is the rough equivalent of a B or better if the school cafeteria were a restaurant rated by the city.
“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of students and staff,” Aciman said. “We work closely with the Department of Health to immediately investigate and address any violation.”
The report highlighted some troublesome findings, including at one Brooklyn school food operation where live roaches and nearly 600 fresh mice droppings were discovered by a health inspector.
At another, five second-graders got sick after eating cafeteria lunches. A health inspector who visited the school days later found dirty equipment and poor conditions regarding how food was laid out, the report said.
The school lunch program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency’s regulations require local health officials to inspect school cafeterias twice every school year. About 1,400 city school cafeterias were inspected at least once. Some of those cafeterias serve more than one school, the report said.
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