They are some of busiest restaurants in our communities and your children eat there almost daily.
Local school cafeterias feed millions of students during the school year, and just like other restaurants in Butler County, they are inspected by county or city health departments, with more of these offering public access to their inspection reports online.
A Journal-News review of cafeteria inspection reports from the 2015-2016 school year for all 10 of Butler County’s public school districts and Mason and Kings schools in Warren County revealed a range of violations, though few of a serious nature.
The number of “critical violations” — those considered most serious — were quickly remedied, according to reports obtained from the Butler County Board of Health, Hamilton City Health Department, Middletown Health Department and the Warren County Combined Health District.
There were no notations of gross critical violations such as signs of vermin, insects, rotting or otherwise contaminated foods.
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Critical violations included: not keeping foods hot or cold enough; waiting too long for re-heating some foods; mislabeled foods or foods lacking required labels; and inadequate hand washing or other cleaning.
All critical violations were noted as being corrected immediately or shortly thereafter by follow-up inspections.
Surprise inspections are done twice a year and county and city health officials often return to schools to check on whether violations first noted have been corrected.
Reports more frequently noted “non-critical” violations — those not considered an immediate threat to food safety — such as improper food storage, dust on ventilation fans or inadequate cleaning solution strength.
Fewer serious violations is a reflection of both the professionalism of area cafeteria workers and the historic trend of recent years that has seen schools move away from “cooking from scratch” meals on site to serving pre-packaged foods that only require unpacking and heating.
“Schools go through cycles of prepared foods versus cooking from scratch,” said Chris Burkhardt, Lakota Local Schools’ director of wellness and child nutrition.
Lakota — Southwest Ohio’s second largest school system — served more than 1.2 million lunches last school year.
“As the labor pools shrink and budgets become tighter some districts opt for prepared foods. Lakota has always used a speed scratch model which is a hybrid from using exclusively prepared foods but not as labor intensive as scratch cooking,” Burkhardt said.
Burkhardt — a recent winner of the national “School Nutrition Heroes” chosen by the School Nutrition Foundation — said more pre-packaged foods for students isn’t a negative.
“All kindergarten through 12th grade food manufacturers have very rigorous standards when it comes to food quality and sanitation. Since we feed a population of students who are most susceptible to food borne illness as their immune systems have not fully developed yet. We have very strict protocols deals with food safety and foodborne illness for that reason,” he said.
University of Dayton Assistant Professor in dietetics Diana Cuy Castellanos said the trend away from on-site cooking may help to reduce health violations but not without losing something.
“We have compromised healthy foods for economic savings,” she said.
While inspections of the simplified, modern-day school cafeteria may not reveal horrific food safety violations, by nutritional standards, student meals can be found lacking, she said, with popular foods like tater tots, processed chicken nuggets and (fried) fish sandwiches.
But Lakota East Freshman School Cafeteria Manager Terry Mueller — a 22-year veteran of Lakota meal services — has seen the pre-packaged trend first hand and welcomes it.
“We did make a lot of things from scratch before that are now pre-cooked so we’re doing a heat and go. But things now are healthier,” said Mueller citing the wider range of fruits, vegetables and lean meats, lower in fat and calories.
Public access to cafeteria inspections
Jackie Phillips, Middletown Health Commissioner, whose city health department began to post cafeteria inspections online for the first time in the spring, said the public welcomes the expanded access online to the reports.
“It’s basically done so our citizens and community can have access to what we have as far as our inspections and all our results. We have had a good (public) response in general as far as the online accessibility of our inspections. It’s important for any citizen — especially schools and parents to be able to see the last inspections … and it’s always there,” said Phillips.
“You can see any past inspections … and that way you don’t really have to come through us,” she said.
Besides Middletown, online school reports are available in Butler and Warren counties. But in the county seat city of Hamilton, residents don’t have an online option and health officials there cite costs as among the reasons.
To receive cafeteria inspections directly from the Hamilton City Health Department, the public must travel to the department’s downtown office.
“Food operation inspection are not required to be available online. They are required to be available upon request, which they are,” Cindy Hogg, environmental and compliance administrator for the Hamilton Health Department, told the Journal-News.
“The city of Middletown Health Department and Butler County Health Department have a computer system which easily allows for the food operation inspections to be viewed online. Our current computer system works well for our environmental inspections, including inspections of food operations, and for our property nuisance complaints. The city of Hamilton Health Department functions differently from these other local health departments as we are tasked with ensuring compliance with city ordinances,” said Hogg.
“Our health department is current working on an accreditation process, which is where our resources are being allotted for the time being. As our computer system is working well for our needs, (there) is no need for a costly upgrade,” she said.
Butler County Health Department inspections of school cafeterias can be found at www.butlercountyohio.org under “health department” and then “food service inspections.”
Middletown Health Department school reports are at www.cityofmiddletown.org. Click on “government” then on “health” then “online inspection reports.”
Warren County Combined Health District offers inspection information at www.wcchd.com then click “online inspection reports.”
Castellanos praised the easier public access to school cafeterias offered by some health departments online.
The reports inform and reassure school parents, she said, and “are definitely important to make sure their schools are abiding by food safety laws and keeping everything as safe as possible.”