During the recent three-year period for which data is available, about 100,000 schools in the National School Lunch Program have missed at least one of their two required food safety inspections, adding up to almost 73,000 missed inspections between 2008 and 2011, Food Safety News has learned. National School Lunch Week is being celebrated this week, with little attention being paid to food safety in a school year being remembered for the rollout of new federal nutritional standards with restrictions on sodium, fat and calories. The changes are bringing many complaints from students across the country. But the 66-year-old program has never been without food safety issues. With more than 224 billion meals served, it’s got a “captive population” to serve. And many parents think that with federal involvement comes a guarantee that the food is safe. But every year, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service cranks out reports on one of the most basic measures of food safety for institutional food services – inspection compliance. National School Lunch Program schools, according to USDA,“are required to maintain property sanitation and health standards in conformance with all applicable state and local laws and regulations.” “In addition, schools are required to obtain two school safety inspections per school year, which are to be conducted by a state or local government agency responsible for food safety inspection,” USDA’s report says. The requirement to reach out and obtain two inspections from the correct state and local authority has been in place since the 2005-2006 school year. Schools are required to get copies of those inspection reports and share them with FNS. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 extends the current food safety reporting requirements through 2015. But according to those FNS annual reports, about one in four National School Lunch Program schools are not undergoing the required number of inspections. For the 2010-2011 school year – the most recent period for which data is available – 21,963 schools reported being inspected just once or not at all. That was very similar to the 2009-2010 school year, during which 22,915 NSLP schools reported one or no inspections; 959 didn’t report. These two school years were a marked improvement over 2008-2009 when 28,113 NSLP schools failed to obtain the two required inspections, a 28 percent failure rate. Among the explanations USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services has received for this non-compliance are:

  • State and local public health agencies say they lack the staff and funding to inspect school lunch facilities.
  • The responsible inspection agency operates under a risk-based policy and schools are a low priority under their system.
  • No local public health inspectors are available for small towns and rural areas.

While the NSLP has escaped anything on the scaled of the recent outbreak in eastern Germany linked to frozen strawberries imported from China that sickened more than 11,000 students in 500 schools, foodborne diseases outbreaks in U.S. schools are fairly common. A few years ago, the USA Today identified 477 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in schools during a ten year period. No definite source was found in more than half of the school outbreaks. More than 23,000 children were sickened during that decade from “lunchroom staples.” Like restaurants, school lunch programs are subject to inspection by any one of the nation’s 2,800 state and local health departments, which are run by cities, counties, special districts and tribal agencies. But according to the National Association of County & City Health Officials, about 34,000 jobs at these agencies have been eliminated since 2008. Photo Courtesy of Maryland Public Schools