Although federal law requires schools across the country to have food safety inspections twice a year, nearly 9,000 schools during the 2007-2008 school year did not.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, almost 27,000 schools in the U.S. received one food safety inspection or were not inspected at all.  

school-lunch7-featured.jpgThe Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004 increased the requirement for schools from one inspection a year to two, starting with the 2005-2006 school year.

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize child nutrition programs this year.  The current authorization for the Child Nutrition Act expires on September 30, 2010.  

On March 17, Blanche Lincoln, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee released details of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization to be introduced in the Senate this year. This draft legislation proposes $450 million per year over the next ten years for nutrition program funding.

Certain health standards are required by every school that serves meals as a part of the federally funded National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program.

According to Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, “They are checking for cleanliness, hazard procedures, if the food is at the appropriate temperature; those are the major things health inspectors are looking for. Not doing them [the inspections] is not meeting the requirements set forth by law.”

70,000 schools in the U.S. met or exceeded two inspections during the 2007-2008 school year according to the latest reports.

Ranked highest, with 98 percent having met the requirement, was Tennessee.  Maine ranked the worst, having reported 98 percent of schools had received one inspection or less.

The Great Lake states ranged widely when ranking the states by percentage of schools not meeting the requirement.  Michigan was fourteenth with 30 percent, Illinois was seventeenth with 28 percent, Pennsylvania was twenty-fifth 17 percent, Ohio was twenty-sixth with 17 percent, Indiana was thirty-first with 14 percent, and Wisconsin was forty-third with 9 percent of schools receiving one inspection or less.
“We know across the country that local and state governments are being squeezed, and they may not have enough inspectors to get to every place,” Daniel said. “While we are sensitive to the concerns and challenges to getting these done, they do need to be completed.”  

Officials from Michigan’s Ingham County Health Department said they agency has been able to provide two inspections for each school in the county so far.

According to Diane Gorch, Ingham County Health Department’s food safety program supervisor, “We have been able to keep up with our inspections.  I don’t want to say with no problem, but we are doing it.”

Ingham County has seven inspectors who inspect 995 food service facilities.  Gorch said without one of those inspectors they would be hard pressed to perform all of the inspections.  Each inspection takes one to two hours.  By losing only two inspectors, they would be required to go to a risk-based schedule, where only the schools with the highest risks would get inspected.

Michigan ranked 37 in the nation having approximately 69 percent of its 3,845 schools meeting or exceeding requirements.  

According to Chuck Lichon, former director of environmental health with the Midland County Health Department in Midland, Michigan, not having two inspections does not make a school food operation dangerous.  

“This shouldn’t scare anybody,” Lichon said.  “The number of inspections isn’t indicative of the quality of the operation in the school.”

“Schools, generally speaking, usually have pretty good leadership and staff in terms of food safety,” Lichon said. “It is rare, as far as I am concerned, to find a school that has a problem with food safety.”

Lichon feels one inspection would be sufficient and second, follow up inspections could be made on a case-by-case basis.

“It is just a number; the fact that someone walks in from the health department doesn’t mean someone waves a magic wand over the kitchen and everything is better,” Lichon said.  “I think it is more of a perception thing for people; It is a feel better thing.”

During the 2007-2008 school year, 21 states had at least one school that did not report their number of inspections, leaving the status of 2,681 schools across the country unknown.

Of these 2,681 schools, 1,288 of these schools were in California.

“Of course, we are concerned with this and it affects students’ safety, but I think you are aware of the fiscal situation and certainly in Michigan,” said Alan Shannon, director of public affairs for the Midwest Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. “There just aren’t enough resources to do everything that ought to be done, and that is a concern.”

According to Shannon, there isn’t a formal solution for punishing schools that don’t yet meet the requirement.

“Right now, we point it out to them that it is of concern to us and that they need to get the numbers up,” Shannon said. “The only other thing that we could do is withhold funds, but what that is going to result in, is kids not eating.”  

The Economy and Food Safety

According to Daniels, the economic downturn may be responsible for schools not being able to meet the new requirements.

In most cases, inspections are conducted by local health departments.

Amy Thomas, an Ingham County health inspector, said in the 15 years she has been in the position, she has never come across a major safety incident with a school.

“It is different than what you may see at a restaurant,” Thomas said.  “Most of the time, schools are very educated and the employees go through a lot of training.”