Weston's public schools are heralded for academic excellence, but they have a dirty little secret about failing students in one big area -- where they eat.
No district in Fairfield County has had more failed cafeteria inspections over the last five years than Weston. But while it may have the most inspection failures, it is hardly alone.
Districts across Fairfield County -- from Stamford to Shelton, Bridgeport to Bethel and everywhere between -- have been cited for numerous health-code violations inside school cafeterias.
Even well-to-do Greenwich had black marks on its record. And several schools have flunked repeated inspections, while others have passed even after inspectors found mouse droppings or cockroaches in the kitchens.
A Hearst Connecticut Newspapers analysis of 2,248 inspections of public school cafeterias performed throughout the county from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2012, found that health inspectors failed cafeterias a total of 199 times for a variety of violations ranging from hazardous food-storage practices to dirty facilities and sick cafeteria workers wielding ladles.
And even though local health officials downplay the significance of such subpar conditions, parents are concerned they're not being informed about the problems surfacing in their children's cafeterias.
"They send a letter home for other stuff, so why wouldn't they send a letter home for that?" Stamford parent Debbie Green asked. "So if there's chicken pox, or someone has lice -- they don't mention the person, obviously -- but we're notified for all that. So why wouldn't we be notified about the cafeteria that our children are getting their food out of? It's a health issue."
Across the county's cities, Norwalk had 30 failed health inspections, Danbury had 10, Bridgeport had seven and Stamford had three.
In all, schools throughout Fairfield County failed one in 11 inspections over the past five years. But despite consecutive failures in some districts, not a single cafeteria was ever shut down during that time period as the state health code recommends.
In Greenwich, town inspectors found mouse droppings in the cafeteria at one school and ants on the floor in an area where food is served at another, and scored the schools with 13 failures. In Westport, inspectors flunked the cafeterias 14 times and noted five critter-related incidents.
The Hearst analysis also found a disparity in the number of inspections -- all by local health departments -- performed among the county's school districts.
Weston inspects its cafeterias more than three times a year, but in urban districts like Stamford, where health departments have been hit by budget cuts, school kitchens are only inspected once a year. And districts with chronically rare inspections become victims of lax practices, dingy kitchens and potentially dangerous conditions for preparing children's food, while most schools with a high frequency of inspections fared pretty well -- except Weston.
Under state health code, cafeterias can fail an inspection one of two ways: by receiving a score of less than 80 out of 100 points, or by receiving at least one of nine more serious four-point violations for improperly storing foods or general cleanliness and health.
The most common four-point violation -- and one that health inspectors say is among the most dangerous -- is not maintaining foods at proper temperatures.
Health standards require that hot foods be kept at 140 degrees or higher and cold foods at 45 degrees or below.
Weston schools failed to keep foods at proper temperatures 24 times, accounting for 22 percent of 110 failures around the county in that category.
From cheese sitting at 74 degrees, to tuna salad approaching room temperature, tomatoes 15 degrees above the required safe zone and Reuben sandwiches found in a warming cabinet that wasn't working, no brick on the food pyramid was immune to temperature issues in Weston's cafeterias.
With a dozen failures since 2007, Weston Middle School flunked inspections more times than any other school in the county; Weston High School and Redding's John Read Middle School were tied with the second most failures in the county at 10 each.
"A below-80, or more than one four-point violation, triggers immediate repair," he said. "It's not, `quote, unquote' a failure. It's just that this has to get fixed -- `alert, alert, we need to fix this.' "
But while Santelli said he sees such inspections as a gray area, health officials around the county draw a thick black line between inspections with a four-point violation, or a score below 80, and those that fared better.
In Norwalk, keeping an eye on food temperature is a top concern.
"One of the most important areas that we concentrate on are food temperatures," said Thomas Closter, director of environmental services for that city. "We're worried that the food is being cooked properly to 165 degrees, held at 140 degrees and served properly. The reason we feel that way is because during inspections, you might have just one violation, but if it's one that affects food temperatures, that's a four-point demerit item and it's the No. 1 cause -- along with (lack of) hand-washing -- for people getting a food-borne illness."
If failures persist, health officials can close cafeterias, according to the Connecticut health code, which states that a cafeteria has two weeks after a failure to correct its violations.
"After the two weeks, the director of health, registered sanitarian or authorized agent shall make a reinspection and determine a new rating score," the code reads. If the reinspection results in another failure, "the director of health shall take immediate steps to have the food service establishment closed."
But such action has not been taken in Weston, despite several instances when the town's cafeterias failed back-to-back inspections. Nor have cafeterias been closed in Norwalk, which had six instances in the past five years; in Redding or Stratford, which both had five instances; Westport or Greenwich, which both had three instances; or Bridgeport, Danbury, Monroe or Trumbull, which each had one.
That's because health officials have some discretion in those instances, said Redding's Director of Health Douglas Hartline, who maintained that his health department was right to keep cafeterias open because he is "convinced that they're serving safe food" to children.
"If we felt we need to close a school, we certainly would be doing it," Hartline said. "But the code uses the word `failure,' and that implies, `Danger, danger, danger,' but that's just not the case -- at least with Redding schools."
Greenwich's director of environmental services, Michael Long, has a similar attitude.
"Basically, you weight it on what the priorities are," Long said. "So if it was something as far as food temperatures or a faulty piece of equipment that's not able to maintain food temperatures, then we'll work with them to figure out the best way to fix it."
For example, when Greenwich's New Lebanon School failed three consecutive inspections in August and September of 2009 due to plumbing issues, town inspectors allowed the district some time to request funding to fix what was essentially an equipment problem; it was remedied by February 2010, inspections show.
The most egregious instance of consecutive failures took place at Weston Middle School, where health district records show nine inspections in a row, conducted between June 4, 2008, and Oct. 25, 2010, resulted in failures. But Westport Weston Health District Health Director Mark Cooper said he was not aware of Weston schools failing back-to-back inspections, which points to potentially problematic communication issues within the department.
"Clearly, it has not risen to the occasion where I was informed by an inspector where it was a significant risk that demanded closure," he said. "Somewhere in all of this, the director of health has discretion to look at the relative risk."
All told, the inspection scores at Weston Middle School were far from terrible.
With an average of 92.2 points out of 100 per inspection, the grade would earn the school a respectable score on a math test. But measured against the rest of the schools in the county, Weston Middle wouldn't fare well on a curved grading system; it ranked as No. 206 of 221 cafeterias inspected during the five-year period.
While an inspection score can provide insight into the condition of a cafeteria, it doesn't tell the whole story. One school could earn a score of 96, but fail because of a four-point violation, while another could earn a score of an 87 and pass.
And a cafeteria can pass an inspection with a score of 98 out of 100, even after inspectors spotted mice or other vermin claiming kitchens as their own.
Creeping and crawling
Tanya Lennon received no notice last May when health inspectors found signs of vermin in the Monroe elementary school cafeteria where her daughter buys lunch three times a week. Nor was she notified eight months earlier when the cafeteria failed a routine inspection.
The school that Lennon's daughter attends, Fawn Hollow Elementary School, has been repeatedly cited by health officials for mouse feces.
But parents at the school -- including Lennon, who as co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization is usually in the loop -- were never told.
The problem isn't limited to Fawn Hollow.
Vermin sightings were rare in places (in Darien, there was only one mention in 119 inspections, when an inspector found one fly in the storage area of the cafeteria at Middlesex Middle School on June 10, 2011), but there were six districts in the county in which vermin sightings -- mouse or insect -- were recorded at least five times: Bridgeport had the most, with 12 incidents; Monroe had eight; Trumbull, Stratford and Newtown each had six; and Westport had five.
Across the county, evidence of vermin was recorded 63 times during the five-year period.
But no single school had more such violations than Fawn Hollow, where inspectors found mouse droppings in the cafeteria storage area during four consecutive inspections between September 2010 and May 2012. During the school's most recent inspection on May 16, 2012, health officials noted that previously cited holes in the walls and floors near the infested area had finally been "covered with cardboard and tape," after being pointed out as violations and possible spots for harboring pests twice in 2011.
"Most of the town was farmland in the past, and we've had mice here in my house. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that any given building here could have mice," Lennon said. "I don't see it as a huge deal. It happens in everyone's house."
Mice may be part of life in more rural communities, but that doesn't excuse their presence in a school cafeteria, said Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney in the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health and nutrition advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"You could argue the restaurants in New York City could say the same thing about rats because they're everywhere, " Klein said. "But they're not supposed to be in a kitchen."
Spotting a mouse in a public school cafeteria should cause concern for even the least squeamish. Rodents signify a loss of control in the kitchen and can carry contaminants from one corner of the cafeteria to another, Klein said. It doesn't matter how diligently cafeteria staff scrubs down cutting boards. If a mouse gets in, scurrying feet can track bacteria across squeaky clean surfaces.
"Tiny little feet can become contaminated with chicken juices that have salmonella and that can be spread throughout the kitchen," Klein said. "They're also a canary in a coal mine that the kitchen itself is not under control ... in the same way that when you went into a neighbor's house that had vermin, you would think not only `Gross,' but, `What the hell is going on in this kitchen that it's unchecked and these guys are running rampant?' "
A right to know
During an October visit to the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering in Stamford, a piece of paper hung on the wall outside the food service line, proudly displaying exemplary marks on the cafeteria's most recent health inspection.
The white sheet displayed 62 different inspection points, each worth one, two, three or four points. Most items were typed in black ink, while the most severe infractions were written in red. At the bottom, the final score was penned in by the inspector.
The law requires the report to be hung there, and cafeteria workers post the good and the bad. In October 2009, when the cafeteria earned a score of 98 after inspectors spotted insects flying in the food preparation area, the paper hung there with a check mark next to violation No. 42 and its final passing score.
But students don't exactly spend their time examining the inspection sheet. They're more interested in getting their slice of pizza or chunk of lasagna, said Connie Lucifora, who works at the cafeteria. And in order for parents to catch a glimpse of a report -- good or gross -- they have to go to the cafeterias themselves and seek out the sheet, which can be cryptic.
"Posting the inspection reports only goes so far as to providing information because it requires the parent to proactively seek out the report on top of everything else parents have on their plates," Klein said.
The most recent cafeteria failure in Stamford happened at Roxbury Elementary School, where on Dec. 8, 2008, the cafeteria received a score of 91 out of 100, including a four-point deduction issued when the health inspector found that dented cans were not isolated from other foods in the cafeteria's storage. But Roxbury parents won't remember that happening.
"We were never notified. Never. Never ever," said Debbie Green, a Stamford resident who served as co-president of the Roxbury Organization of Parents and Educators during the 2008-2009 school year.
There is no law on the books that states parents and community members must be notified if their children's cafeteria fails an inspection.
But Green said there should be one, since cafeteria cleanliness is a health concern for children who rely on cafeterias to serve their lunch. And in a city like Stamford, where more than half of the district's children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, the cafeteria is often the only choice for many children who must eat a school lunch or go without.
Because there are no statutes stipulating that health departments must publicize failed inspections, the onus is placed on the districts to let parents know, said Stamford Director of Health Anne Fountain.
But school districts don't always pick up that ball: During the five-year period analyzed, Stamford schools never sent a letter home to parents about cafeteria issues. Neither did Greenwich, where cafeterias failed 13 inspections.
In fact, district spokeswoman Kim Eves, who has worked in Greenwich for more than a decade, said she cannot recall a single instance in which the schools have sent notices home to parents about a cafeteria failing inspection.
"Yes, if there is a health or safety risk to students or staff, we absolutely notify parents," Eves said. But when Glenville Elementary School failed five inspections between 2008 and 2010 due to temperature issues and a broken hand-washing sink, Eves said she did not classify the failures as risks.
Similarly, Monroe Public Schools Superintendent James Augustine said the mice incidents at Fawn Hollow didn't amount to a significant enough risk to alarm parents with a letter home.
But Green said schools shouldn't decide whether something is dangerous enough to bring parents into the conversation; rather reaching out should be one of the first steps in the process.
"It seems weird to me," said Green, whose children now attend Cloonan Middle School and Westhill High School in Stamford. "If there's a problem, parents need to be notified. They have a right to know what's going on in a child's school, whether it's good or bad."
Health departments around the county are scrambling schedule inspections of school cafeterias as often as possible, but the county average of two inspections per school a year falls short of the health code's mandate, which states the kitchens "shall be inspected at intervals not to exceed one hundred and twenty (120) days."
Some districts are doing just fine on that front. Weston led the county for most frequent inspections with an average of 3.4 per year; Darien, Westport and Redding also had more than three inspections per year. But everyone else fell short.
Across the county, shrinking budgets and smaller staffs have resulted in many districts checking over their school kitchens less frequently.
Sherman, which is the county's northernmost and least-populated town, had the fewest inspections: Its only public school, Sherman School, hosted inspectors twice between July 2007 and June 2012, according to inspection data provided by the district. Bridgeport and Stamford had the second- and third-lowest frequencies in the county. In Bridgeport, inspectors made it to school kitchens once every two years on average, while Stamford inspectors made it to each school roughly once a year.
Several health officials said the reason for the irregularity was simple: School cafeterias are generally clean, and health departments' overworked staff members are busy.
"It's not like (cafeterias) are trying to respond to a demand. They have set menus and schedules, so you could think the risk at the school is less than it is at other places," said Newtown Health Director Donna Culbert, whose department inspected schools an average of 2.3 times per year. "If you see schools (being inspected) less frequently than three times a year, it's probably because the towns are saying, `Where are the risks bigger?' "
With small staffs providing patchwork coverage, hitting the hot spots is key.
In Stamford, for instance, the Health Department lost two employees to budget cuts at about the same time two members were on maternity leave, cutting staff by roughly 40 percent, according to Fountain, the city's health director.
"I think when we lost the inspectors a couple years ago, we went from a high of about 1,300 inspections a year down to about 500 per year," said Ron Miller, director of environmental inspections for Stamford. That number includes cafeterias, restaurants, housing and environmental health inspections, he said.
The problem of short-staffing may be happening locally, but it's not a Connecticut problem -- it's a national one. And with 48 million Americans contracting food-borne illnesses every year, public health prevention like increased inspections is an essential ingredient to protect American consumers, Klein said.
"Unfortunately what needs to happen is additional dollars from the Legislature need to be funneled into public health prevention," Klein said. "There needs to be recognition that funding for health departments is one way to get ahead of that problem, and unfortunately it's not a matter of threatening the health departments because what they're doing now is triaging their existing budget resources."
Those additional dollars aren't a likely bet for Fairfield County towns and cities, said state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican who represents Weston, Newtown, Easton and Fairfield.
"Food safety is a very important issue," McKinney said. "Kids getting sick affects their ability to learn, and it's not what we want to have happening. But I don't think we're going to see a beefing up, so to speak, of our health districts, because financially our state and our towns are struggling, so we need to look at a better way of self-monitoring our system."
McKinney, who has children in Weston's public schools but has never thought to seek out health inspections records, said the Hearst analysis has opened his eyes to a significant public health concern in his own backyard -- and he plans to do something about it.
"I'm surprised at how serious the problem is," he said. "That's a lot of violations, and that is something that raises a red flag about food safety quality. It concerns me and I think we have to look at it in the Legislature."
In addition to legislative examination of cafeteria cleanliness, McKinney said schools need to increase their ownership of the problems as well as transparency.
"There could be a notice to parents if there's a series of serious citations, and I think we need to look at that," he said. "There needs to be oversight to those decisions, something publicly, so we don't have the concern that some officials might be covering up mistakes because it would be embarrassing if it comes out."
At the end of the day, parents need to be able to trust their children are being served healthy and safe food, he said. In Fairfield County, that means some significant changes need to be made.
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