Private company to run cafeterias in 18 high schools Health violations rife in district kitchens

July 19, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

Amid reports of dirt and dissatisfaction at many cafeterias, food operations at 18 Baltimore high schools are being turned over to a private company.

This latest example of school privatization, to begin in the fall, was disclosed last week by Leonard U. Smackum, director of food and nutrition services for Baltimore's 177 public schools.

He said that many students have mounted a silent protest against cafeteria food by simply not eating it. And he acknowledged that sanitation is a problem in some school kitchens.

City health inspectors found many violations in cafeteria operations during the past school year, according to a Sun survey of inspection reports for all public schools.

Mr. Smackum insisted that student dissatisfaction is the main reason for privatization.

"We're hoping that more extensive menus and spruced-up dining areas will get these kids excited about food," he said. "It could even impact on [overall student] attendance."

The Sun survey of inspection records for the 1992-93 school year showed that many cafeterias have problems with pest control, food handling, storage and faulty or missing equipment.

Sixty-six cafeterias were found to be infested with rodents or roaches, and 36 had no thermometers to check food temperatures -- a step that guards against bacterial growth.

Fifteen schools were operating with malfunctioning cooking or refrigeration equipment, and 14 had food stored in damaged cans that were rusted, swollen or leaking.

Mr. Smackum said that in August the city's Board of Estimates will name a company to run the 18 high school cafeterias. The new management will be responsible "for all aspects of the cafeterias -- and all of the headaches," he said.

The bidding process is not complete, and the eventual effect on lunch prices is not known. But prices are not supposed to increase at the 18 high schools during the coming school year.

Depending on the financial arrangements, privatizing the 18 cafeterias could save more than $500,000 a year, said Mr. Smackum. The system loses that amount each year on high school food services, mostly because older students stay out of the lunchrooms.

"There is nothing a private company can do that the city can't, if we had the resources. That's the key. They have the dollars, and we don't."

School officials hope to pull out of the high school cafeterias by mid-October, bringing to 27 the number of lunchrooms run privately. In September, in an unrelated move, the city will turn over food services in nine elementary and middle schools to Education Alternatives Inc., the Minneapolis firm that began operating those schools last year as part of its "Tesseract" project.

According to Mr. Smackum, there are no plans now to privatize food services at the remaining city schools. As for other Maryland school districts, he said that Queen Anne's County also has privately run cafeterias.

During the last school year, the Baltimore City Health Department inspected every cafeteria, two-thirds of them between January and June.

Many school kitchens were spotless; but others had serious problems.

At Beechfield Elementary, in May, an inspector observed that raw sewage from a backed-up drain was being tracked across the kitchen floor while food was being prepared. Franklin Square Elementary was cited for 28 violations in April, prompting this scathing comment by a health inspector:

"This is one of the worst schools for noncompliance. . . . If this were a restaurant, it would have been closed."

The Health Department's findings throughout the school system led to a meeting in June with school officials.

At that session, Jerry Welch, chief of the Health Department's Bureau of Food Control, implored the officials to monitor cafeterias better because of the vulnerability of school children. Outbreaks of food-borne illness most often affect the young and the very old.

"I also [emphasized] that if there were a food-borne illness, it could affect every student in a school," Mr. Welch said.

Workshop set for August

As a result, school and Health Department officials have scheduled a mandatory one-day workshop for cafeteria employees in August.

"It will be less a retraining than a re-emphasis of good sanitation practices," Mr. Smackum said. "Sometimes these workers become complacent and lazy because there hasn't been a food-borne outbreak. God forbid there ever were one in the schools."

Mr. Smackum acknowledged that vermin are a blight on many cafeterias. Nearly four out of 10 had rodent or roach infestations -- or both.

All schools maintain a regular extermination program, but vermin are "a continuing, frustrating problem," he said. "Some schools are old and infested throughout."

At Arnett J. Brown Middle School, a kitchen inspection revealed pieces of dead roaches in food equipment drawers, and mouse feces in a meat slicer. At Thomas G. Hayes Elementary, a health inspector condemned several cases of condiments that were "heavily spotted with roach feces."

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