SF school cafeterias seem to be falling through the cracks for health inspections 

In the Lincoln High School cafeteria in January, an inspector from the Department of Public Health found a mouse body on a glue trap behind a food container in a storage room. The school also was cited for failing to maintain perishable foods at the proper temperature.

These violations should have garnered a follow-up, but a recent interview with city officials shows that any such inspection — or correctional actions — either didn’t occur or weren’t documented.

Under the federal Child Nutrition Act, school cafeterias are required to be inspected twice a year. But documents from the Public Health Department suggest many of the 120 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District are violating guidelines.

The fault doesn’t lie with schools, but instead with the department.

Kenny Wong, the department’s principal health director, said inspectors try to make it a point to visit schools twice a year or once a semester, but a limited number of inspectors makes it difficult to reach all campuses in a timely manner.

Inspection records reviewed recently by The San Francisco Examiner suggest 12 schools haven’t been inspected at all since 2006 and 26 more only once in the past five years.

Public Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields said some of the reports existed but were misfiled. Other inspections hadn’t occurred, she said, but have now taken place or at least been scheduled since The Examiner first inquired about the issue.

For instance, Starr King Elementary School was inspected April 15 and scored a 96 out of 100, and Thurgood Marshall High School was inspected between April 13 and 19 and scored a 90.

Still, Dianne Feinstein and KIPP Bayview elementary schools each had no inspections records at all. And when asked whether Lincoln High had been revisited to see if it corrected its problems, Wong said he couldn’t find any follow-up.

“She should have gone back there,” he said of the inspector.

Wong said the department’s 26 inspectors visit roughly 7,000 food-serving facilities in The City annually. The facilities include restaurants, bars, markets, bakeries, pushcarts, stadium vendors and other facilities that serve food to the public.

However, restaurants and private schools pay the department a fee for inspections or reinspections. But public schools do not, which could indicate the department is much more diligent when it comes to inspecting profit-making food businesses.

Director of Environmental Health Rajiv Bhatia said fee revenue has little to do with inspection rates. Instead, he said, because public schools in San Francisco no longer prepare their own food, the operation is of low risk.

“Children are a particularly vulnerable population; it’s good to have multiple eyes on cafeterias,” he said. “But two inspections each year? There are only 365 days in a year.”

San Francisco schools have not prepared their own meals in more than a decade. However, schools reheat and store foods on site and must still meet sanitary requirements.

The district contracts out all meal preparation to a private company, Preferred Meal System of Brisbane.

Parent Dana Woldow, member of the district’s nutrition and physical education commission, said public schools in The City have not had the equipment to cook full meals since the 1980s.

Nancy Waymak, SFUSD’s director of student nutrition services, said the district tries to ensure food is prepared and delivered to students in the most sanitary conditions.

“We are always in an effort to be as clean and ready for inspection as possible,” Waymak said. “If there are any violations, the central office is notified and a corrective action is taken immediately.”

In theory, every food-service establishment in San Francisco is graded on nearly 100 items, including cleanliness and preparation practices. All are given a high-, moderate- or low-risk designation of severity. Multiple high-risk violations could result in immediate shutdown.

But there is little incentive to be sure that schools are kept up to code. Neither the Public Health Department nor the school are penalized for not being inspected or failing to fix problems.

Some violations are found during routine unannounced inspections, while others are investigated following complaints. And on the balance, the recent violations found in San Francisco schools were relatively minimal.

While most schools inspected by the health department had no violations, some had visible traces of rodents. A few others were cited for improper storage temperatures and others lacked proper sinks for washing dishes and utensils.

San Francisco restaurants fund frequent inspections

When Lou’s Pier 47 restaurant failed to meet some requirements on its June 2009 health inspection, San Francisco Department of Public Health inspectors were back three days later to make sure the violation had been corrected.

The highest risk factor — improper cooling methods — was corrected.

Eleven months later, inspectors revisited the restaurant to make sure it was running properly and sanitarily.

That time, it received moderate reviews with only a need to clean nonfood surfaces and wall-floor baseboards and provide adequate supplies for hand washing.

Director of Environmental Health Rajiv Bhatia said the San Francisco Health Department generates roughly $14.6 million a year from its inspections.

The department is not subject to typical budget cuts of other city departments because it generates revenue.

The vast majority of The City’s roughly 7,000 culinary establishments — including bars and bakeries — are examined at least two times a year by food-safety inspectors from the Department of Public Health. It’s required by law.

And when a restaurant is found guilty of even the smallest infraction — such as not posting its inspection in public view — owners can request inspectors return to the premises within days to verify that the violation has been corrected.

San Francisco schools are not charged for health inspections. But restaurants in The City are not only responsible for an initial inspection of as little as $263 for candy stores and as much as $1,200 for a large restaurant, but also must pay another $173 for follow-up inspections.

Food-safety infractions

The three categories of violations:

High-risk category
Violations directly related to the transmission of food-borne illnesses, the adulteration of food products and the contamination of food-contact surfaces.

Moderate-risk category
Violations such as unclean food surfaces or moderately improper food-storage temperatures.

Low-risk category
Violations such as failure to display employee health certifications or insufficient soap or paper towels.

Source: Department of Public Health

What inspectors look for

Overview of requirements by Public Health Department:

  • No vermin infestation (rodents, insects, other pests) upon premises
  • Foods must not be stored on floor
  • Storage areas, shelves must be clean
  • Walls, floors, ceilings must be clean, intact without cracks, breaks
  • Food storage must be arranged to prevent cross-contamination
  • Sufficient regular refuse collection to prevent garbage problems
  • Food service workers shall exhibit good personal hygiene, work habits

Source: Department of Public Health

Sample of violations found at city schools

Offenses that turned up during the most recent round of inspections:

Aptos Middle School
Repair freezer to at or below 41 degrees; walk-in cooler is 48 degrees; milk holding at 46 degrees (Nov. 19)

Clare Lilienthal School (Divisadero campus)
Immediately discontinue use of “Raid Flying Insect” spray (Nov. 4)

Gateway High School
Continue efforts to eliminate vermin (Nov. 4)

Gordon J. Lau Elementary School
Improper food storage; milk reached 58 degrees; eliminate mouse infestation (Sept. 29)

Jose Ortega Elementary School
Nonfood contact surfaces not clean; improper storage ID (May 14)

Junipero Serra Elementary School
Discontinue storing mop in sink; should only be used for dishwashing purposes (Dec. 13)

Marina Middle School
Food contact surfaces not sanitary; ensure precooked foods are reheated to 165 degrees prior to holding at 135 degrees for serving (April 11)

San Francisco Community School
Adjust hot water, currently at 110 degrees; should be at 120 (Dec. 3)

San Francisco School of the Arts
Train all employees to properly sanitize utensils; improper food storage; food contact surfaces not sanitized, clean (Jan. 21)

Thurgood Marshall High School
Complaints of rats in kitchen; must clear debris from door area (Sept. 15, 2005)

Source: Department of Public Health

akoskey@sfexaminer.com

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