Cambridge skirted law on school food service inspections

At the King Open School, inspectors found animal droppings in storage areas.

By Rachel Zarrell and Gal Tziperman Lotan

The city’s Inspectional Services Department has been checking public schools for health code violations only half as frequently as state law requires even though official visits have regularly found violations such as rodent droppings, fruit flies and trash bins left open.

Although state law requires inspections of school cafeterias at least once every six months, for the past three years the department has been inspecting those in the city public schools just once a school year, according to a review of records by Cambridge Day.

Those records showed that shortcomings found by inspectors were generally minor and fixed in follow-up visits but sometimes found again in the next annual inspection.

Ranjit Singanayagam, Cambridge Inspectional Services commissioner, said he was unaware that his department had been failing to inspect the public schools’ cafeterias once every six months until reporters brought it to his attention. He said department inspectors would immediately begin making official visits to the school cafeterias every six months, as required by state law.

With more than 5,600 students, Cambridge’s school system consists of 12 elementary schools, one high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, and a small high school extension program. A review of official reports filed from the schools by department inspectors between 2008-10 uncovered such deficiencies as:

  • For three years running, the John M. Tobin School had a broken or missing trash bin behind the cafeteria.
  • Animal droppings were found in the storage rooms of the Andrew Peabody and King Open schools.
  • The Graham & Parks School had the wrong temperature on its walk-in freezer, which employees left open.
  • The Cambridgeport School was cited as having items stored on or around a kitchen grease trap.
  • At the Fletcher Maynard Academy, a lack of sanitizer was noted two years in a row in April 2008 and March 2009, taking two re-inspections each time before the problem was fixed.
  • The floor in the Kennedy-Longfellow School’s freezer was rusted and rotting, and the insulation was coming off pipes near cooking equipment.
  • A Daniel A. Haggerty School industrial stove was overdue for inspection, according to an expiration sticker on its hood.
  • The Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school was cited for having fruit flies around the sinks.

Singanayagam classified the violations as “nonmajor” and “noncritical.”  None was bad enough to shut down a cafeteria, as inspectors have the power to do in extremely unsanitary kitchens, he said.

“Any violation is dealt with serious concern,” he said. “We don’t just let it go because it’s a minor violation.”

John J. Mingle, director of food services for Cambridge Public Schools, said that as part of his job he visits all public school cafeterias constantly to make sure sanitary and food-preparation standards are followed. But state law says that’s the role of the city’s Inspectional Services Department — and, as Singanayagam said, inspectors believed they were complying with the law by visiting cafeterias once during the school months and again during the summer, when summer camp programs are run out of the schools.

The summer inspections are necessary, Singanayagam said, but he acknowledged that counting them as a full school year inspection skirted the state requirement — modeled after provisions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1999 federal food code. The food served during the summer is supplied by an outside vendor, not school employees, and is usually sandwiches and snacks, not hot meals prepared in cafeteria kitchens.

From now on, all Cambridge public school cafeterias and kitchens would be inspected under the same twice-a-year schedule mandated for restaurants and caterers in the city, Singanayagam said.

Mingle said he always thought re-inspections counted as the second one, and said he had no qualms with the failure to do a second inspection during the school year because the problems found in Cambridge’s schools are usually minor.

“They generally only find a dusty vent or a loose dripping — small stuff,” he said.

Kristen Fernandes, one of the three Cambridge sanitation inspectors, said she has never found a serious problem involving the freshness or preparation of food in a school cafeteria. “There are things that need to be corrected, but it’s never been anything about the food,” she said. “[Cafeteria workers] are very careful with what they do. … I’ve never, ever had a complaint from a parent who said that ‘my kid got sick’ in the 10 years that I’ve been here.”

In Cambridge, inspectors check for everything from how fresh the food is to prep-surface cleanliness and the knowledge of the person in charge of operations. Since the City Council passed a ban on trans fats, which went into effect July 2009, inspectors have also checked for artificial fat in the food, again finding no violations. Inspectors have routinely seen only problems with the cleanliness of kitchens and storage areas.

According to current Centers for Disease Control estimates, 48 million Americans come down with food-borne illness every year — down 20 percent from 1999. Most of the cases are mild, but 3,000 Americans die and 128,000 are hospitalized.

The need for twice-yearly inspections was underscored by Suzanne K. Condon, director of the state Bureau for Environmental Health. “You’re dealing with a population of children, who tend to be more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. We would want to see school cafeterias inspected with regularity,” she said in an interview.

The students are more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses because “with kids, the rate of hand-washing is not as frequent as it should be. Diarrhea carries more risks when contracted by children. And in many schools, the food is often cooked off-site and transported to the school, and that creates more risk,” Condon said.

The size of Cambridge’s cafeterias may have played a role in sparing the city from the problems found recently at Boston Public Schools, where food was being routinely served to students long after it expired.

Cambridge school cafeterias keep their food in small storage rooms and freezers within each school, said the district’s chief operating officer, Jim Maloney. The largest is at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, and it’s about 450 square feet, while Boston Public Schools store food in four immense warehouses outside the city and have it delivered when needed.

Going off of a tip, in March a Boston city councilor made surprise visits to the kitchens of several Boston public schools and found expired food — frozen and stored products, including frozen beef, vegetables and cheese — on shelves ready to be served. There were egg patties and pork patties dated up to two years old.

The blame for the expired food ultimately fell on “severe mismanagement” in the school system, said the councilor, John R. Connolly, resulting in a lack of inventory control, poor menu planning and a disconnect in communication between the people at each step in the process, resulting in more food being ordered while the same food sat in storage. It was also found the free food given to the schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which amounts to about 15 percent of the food that ends up on Boston lunch trays, was sometimes delivered already expired.

At the behest of Connolly, Boston disposed of 280 cases of old food from 40 of 46 full-service kitchens, worth about $7,000, in April. An additional 3,000 cases of expired food worth $107,000 was also still being stored in a warehouse; thousands of cases were donated to state prisons, some of which the state Department of Correction refused to accept.

While the experiences in Boston startled Cambridge school officials, they did not report finding any expired food on their kitchen shelves. “That day when I saw the story in the Globe … I called Jack [Mingle] and said, ‘Promise me that there’s no food that’s six years old in our kitchens,’” Maloney said. “And they had already begun their own internal review to make sure that wasn’t the case.”
In the aftermath came the realization that when food arrives at schools or warehouses, it is labeled with different types of expiration dates; food may be stamped with a “sell by,” “use by” or “produced by” date, each designating the product with a separate length of shelf life.

“We’re developing a protocol for each of the three categories,” Maloney said.

Of the food served to Cambridge kids on a daily basis, about 30 percent comes from the state under the USDA. It was assumed the food met state freshness guidelines, and Maloney said school officials could be lax in checking expiration dates; the findings in Boston schools taught them that even the food from the state has the potential to arrive expired.

“I’m not going to lie, we believe that it hasn’t happened, but we don’t have any proof that it did, nor could I say with absolute certainty that it didn’t,” he said.

View all of the inspection reports here.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.